“El Chapo,” the infamous Mexican drug lord, will go down in history for his inability to escape prison. Yes, he staged two elaborate vacations from them—the second via an impressive Hogan’s-Heroes-style tunnel he dug beneath his cell—but he was just as much a prisoner outside those walls. His captor is one that captivates all human beings from time to time: greed. This overwhelming desire takes many forms, tying us down to money, power, food and all the other passions separating us from wisdom.
Not all prisoners remain separated from that gift, even within prison walls. After a recent riot in a Delaware prison, news accounts reported that the major beef of those involved was a lack of education and rehabilitation programs. Granted, rioting is not a very smart way to try achieving those ends, but a few of those prisoners were wise enough to know they needed fixing. Throughout history, even kings and queens with the power to create or release prisoners knew that fact deep down.
King Herod is a perfect example. He made a prisoner of John the Baptist for preaching against the sin of adultery—and for using Herod and his brother’s wife, Herodias as Exhibit A. Ultimately that woman pressured Herod into having the Baptist beheaded, but that didn’t remove the effect of John’s message from Herod’s heart. Mark’s gospel account reported that Herod liked listening to the Baptist. Mk 6:14-29
Herod liked the sound of righteousness and wisdom coming out of someone who knew he was a free man, whether or not he was surrounded by prison walls. Even as a king, Herod was more of a prisoner than John was. He was a prisoner to his fiery passions, and this Sunday’s first reading from Sirach (Sir 15:15-20) explains that we all hold the key to our own freedom:
[God] has set before you fire and water, to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.
Paul tells the Corinthians in our second reading (1 Cor 2:6-10) that this weakness in humanity, this lack of spiritual wisdom, particularly in humans who achieve earthly power, explains why Christ’s death was so prophetic.
“We speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory, and which none of the rulers of this age knew; for, if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
Spiritual wisdom is what freed people like John the Baptist, as well as all of Christ’s disciples. They knew that God’s love is a “Get out of jail free” card. As Paul concluded, “what God has prepared for those who love him, this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” Eye has not seen and ear has not heard it.
But they also knew this love was to be unfettered by earthly passions. You can’t love God and hate your brother or sister, as Jesus teaches us in Sunday’s gospel reading (Mt 5:17-37 ).
If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
God is a jealous lover, demanding devotion unadulterated by earthly passions. If we can’t love God this way, we are no different from El Chapo. We can try tunneling out of our self-imposed prison, but we’ll just keep digging ourselves into a deeper hole. Go deep enough, you may find what people like Herod call home.