This is Herod Antipas, who was the instrument of death for both John the Baptist and ultimately, for Jesus himself. Herod was a massively powerful Jewish puppet, appointed by Rome. His job was to maintain the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, the status quo, to which Jesus was a threat. Jesus was a Jewish nobody from nowhere… but people were listening to him and following him, and that was a political problem. Herod’s family cast a wide shadow over Jesus since the day of his birth. It had been Herod the Great who was responsible both for Joseph and Mary’s fleeing for safety to Egypt with their infant child. This same Herod was also responsible for the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, his in-vain attempt to exterminate this promising newborn, Jesus.Jesus’ life begins and ends in violence, which would greatly inform his teaching. As would his experience of everyday life, the 30 or so years he lived before he began his public ministry. If we listen to Jesus “forensically,” that is, if we listen to teaching as an answer, a response, to what is going on around him, we can quite clearly imagine what was coming down:
- Jesus talks endlessly about forgiving. And how many times should we forgive? Seventy-times-seven, i.e., infinitely. So what’s that about? It would seem, lots of resentment, indignation, grudges, vilification, getting even. Jesus talks endlessly about forgiving.
- Jesus talks a great deal about sharing. Sharing food, sharing money, sharing your coats, sharing accommodations. “Give to everyone who begs.” Sharing should go without sharing; however Jesus clearly needs to say it.
- Jesus says, “don’t be anxious,” “don’t let your heart be troubled,” “don’t be afraid.” Clearly, there was a great deal of anxiety and fear.
- He says not to swear falsely; don’t swear at all. “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” What’s that about? Duplicity? Gossip? Slander?
- He reminds people not to murder… but you are just as liable if you murder someone in your heart, if you call someone a fool.
- Jesus said the greatest is not greatest but the least. Status and power were continual themes, even among his closest disciples.
- He esteems prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, the poor, children and a great many other people who did not otherwise count.
- He spoke knowingly about when – not if but when – you are reviled, persecuted, and when people speak all kinds of evil about you. Don’t be surprised… except that you’re going to be blessed through this. Trust me.
- He says when someone strikes your right cheek, offer the other cheek also.
- Jesus promises his peace – not peace on the outside “as the world gives,” but peace on the inside, and he promises to be with us always, even to the end.
- In many forms, violence threaded its way throughout Jesus’ lifetime, as it would his followers whom he says must also take up their own crosses.
Turning Jesus’ words inside-out, we can get quite a clear picture about life – the life he experienced and the life he predicts for his followers. The norm. Jesus doesn’t just hint that the going might be tough. He absolutely, invariably presumed the news he preached would be good news, not because we would be spared enormous challenge and probably suffering in life. To the contrary. We’re promised it. “A servant is not greater than his master,” he says. What makes this bad news good news is Jesus’ promise that he is with us: his presence and his provision. And that’s his last word: “You can do this.”
This Gospel passage appointed for today is like a “heads up,” a word of encouragement, especially on a tough day. It for thems like us that Jesus has good news. Our last prayer in our liturgy today will be for strength and courage: to take Jesus at his word – the promise of his presence and provision – which will be no less miraculous for us today, given the givens, then for his followers 2,000 years ago. Good news.
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