The year before he was assassinated, Abraham Lincoln said, “I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside of me.” He was speaking about the conscience.
His contemporary, Friedrich Nietzsche, viewed it as just the opposite: “The sting of conscience, like the gnawing of a dog at a bone, is mere foolishness.” In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche said, “One may so train one’s conscience that it kisses one when it bites.”
The conscience is biting King Herod in today’s Gospel. His stepdaughter Salome is also his niece. John the Baptist had told him it is wrong to steal his brother’s wife. For this Herod put John in prison. But he couldn’t stop listening to truth. Truth appealed to him, but he couldn’t make the break.
And now the decisive moment has come. Herodias sends her daughter in to the party to dance. Salome is a teenager at this point. Her dance is … well, it’s not ballet. It’s designed to evoke a response from the besotted men. Herod boasts he’ll give her a prize for her evocative performance, and Herodias’ trap is sprung.
Now Herod has a choice: follow his conscience and keep John the Baptist alive; or keep his foolish promise to save face in front of his guests.
What are we here for, at Immanuel Lutheran School? Our goal as pedagogs is to ago the paidoi, to lead the children to their goal, to their completion, to their perfection. We ourselves are not there, but we are on the path. And this path leads to the kingdom of God, the perfection of the world in the regenesis of the human race. All the subjects—math and literature etc.—are to be employed with nurturing the conscience and shaping the heart. We are preparing our young men for the moment Salome salaciously presents herself and now a decision must be made. We are preparing our young women to not be Salome.
Yet there is something beyond morals here, and obedience to the God-given conscience. There is also preparation for the moment after the moment, the time when we’ve stepped off the path our pedagogs mapped out for us.
In that moment when the conscience stings, we must not make it, as Nietzsche would have it, into a kiss. The sting of the conscience is healed with water. St. Peter says, “There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21).
If we see ourselves truly, none of us can have a clean conscience. But Baptism pours upon us the obedience of another, the perfection of Jesus. Pedagogy leads the child to Him and says, “There is the good conscience; you are baptized into Christ, the New Adam in whom is resurrection and life.”
The work you are doing doesn’t pay well. And before too long, you may have a parent or two asking for your head on a platter. But few things are as vital in this world as the task you have taken on. The Lord is with you. He smiles upon you. He is your good conscience. Jesus is risen. Be anxious for nothing. Rejoice always.
In the Name of + Jesus