Herod’s Perplexity – Br. David Vryhof

Br. David Vryhof

Luke 9:7-9

In today’s very brief gospel lesson, we get a glimpse into the heart of Herod Antipas, the Roman Jew who was the ruler of Galilee and Perea during Jesus’ lifetime.  This short text from Luke’s gospel reveals that he is both frightened of Jesus and fascinated by him.  It calls to mind Herod’s relationship to Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist.  We read in Mark 6:20 that Herod “feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.  When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”  We know the rest of the story, don’t we… John’s popularity posed a threat to Herod and he had John arrested and imprisoned.  Not long afterwards, in a state of drunkenness at a party he was hosting, Herod made an extravagant promise to his daughter, which led to John’s beheading.  It was a promise he deeply regretted.  It is clear that he was both fascinated by John and fearful of John’s influence.

Here we see a similar response to Jesus.  Herod is alarmed by the reports coming to him about the wondrous signs Jesus is performing and his growing popularity.  Some people are saying that John has been raised from the dead; others that Elijah has returned.  Herod is confused by the reports and threatened by what he is hearing.  But he is also curious.  He “tried to see him,” the gospel writer tells us, though he doesn’t share with us why Herod wanted to see Jesus.  Perhaps it was to witness the miracles himself, or perhaps to decide for himself who this Jesus was.  But it also could have been to interrogate him, arrest him, or even put him to death. We don’t know.

What interests me is the curious mixture of fear and admiration in Herod towards these two prophetic figures.  He recognizes that both men are “righteous and holy,” both are popular among the people, and both pose a threat to his reign.  And yet he wants to see them and hear what they have to say.  In the end, Herod’s fear wins out over his curiosity.  He is afraid of losing his power, his wealth, and his influence.  His heart closes to their message and he must destroy them to preserve his privileged position.

Have you seen this before?  People of privilege and power can be afraid to embrace the truth or do the right thing because they risk losing their influence. To follow their conscience may mean that they won’t be re-elected or that their ratings will drop.  They can’t risk it.  So they close their hearts and cling tightly to their power, even when it means embracing lies and practicing deception.

It may be that you recognize this tendency not only in the powerful, but also in yourself.  It can be difficult to embrace and speak the truth when it jeopardizes our popularity or our privilege.  It can be hard to do the right thing when it means we will have to make do with less or be forced to share our privileges and benefits with others.  Speaking the truth or doing what is right is likely to cost us something.

Love can overcome this fear.  Love can give us the courage to let go of power and privilege to lift up another.  Love can teach us to bend low and serve, to risk personal loss to follow the example of our Savior.  Love can keep our hearts open to truth, even when that truth is inconvenient, or when it threatens our social status or our way of life.  But “we love because he first loved us” and we serve because he came as the servant of all.  Clinging to power and privilege is not the way of Jesus.  Jesus’ way is the way of love.

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