Date: February 21, 2016
Title: “Off the Record with Herod”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Luke 13:31-35
Today we are going “off the record” with Herod Antipas. First, we have to know who we are talking about. This is not the King Herod found in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, the one famous for trying to trick the Magi and later murdering all of Judea’s little boys in an attempt to wipe out the baby Jesus. Oh no, that was this Herod’s dear old dad, Herod the Great.
If we are to understand Herod Antipas, it helps to consider his family. So Herod the Great ruled Judea under the Roman emperor for 34 years. Along the way, that Herod married a Hasmonaean princess named Marianne, and the together Herod and Marianne had two sons. When the boys were still young, an insanely jealous Herod the Great executed Marianne. Just a few years later, he killed his two sons. Now, he probably had help developing this particular paranoia, thanks to Antipater, his older son from a first wife.
So Antipater was named heir to the throne once the two other boys were killed. But Antipater’s good fortune didn’t last long either – only as long as it took for Herod the Great to find out about the plot the kill him and take over the monarchy. So Antipater was replaced by another Herod (still not Antipas), the son of yet another wife. When this son fell out of favor, in 5 BCE, our guy – Herod Anitpas – finally gets the nod as heir to the throne.
Unfortunately, four or five days before King Herod (Herod the Great) dies, he changes his mind yet again and re-writes his will, to divide the kingdom between three of his remaining sons. Archelaus is given Judea along with the title “king”. Philip is named “tetrarch” of the land east and northeast of the lake of Galilee. And Herod Antipas is to rule Galilee and Peraea as tetrarch as well.
Okay, so there you have it – the quintessential vision of a dysfunctional family giving rise to a marginally effective politician! Early in his reign Herod Antipas marries a daughter of the Nabataean king Aretas the fourth. Twenty years later, he falls in love with his own niece, Herodias – who is inconveniently already married to Herod’s brother. Oh, but why let these little matters get in the way of love? Herodias and Herod both ditch their current spouses, ignore their very close family ties, and marry one another. Which seems to work out okay (that is, if you don’t care about the war King Aretas wages to avenge his daughter’s humiliation)… it all works out until John the Baptism comes along to point out a few problems with the morality (or lack thereof) of Herod’s household.
Faced with public criticism of his private life, and understandably insecure in his tenuous hold on power (just remember what happened to so many of his brothers), Herod imprisons John the Baptist and later beheads him. And then he hears about Jesus! He hears about a new prophet making the rounds in Galilee, preaching about a divine kingdom, and asking people to recognize not Rome’s reign, but God’s rule. He hears about Jesus threatening the status quo of the political powers that be. It’s like Jesus is proposing the ultimate third party alternative! No wonder Herod is unsettled and upset.
But if we were to sit down for a face-to-face, a tete-a-tete talk with Herod Antipas today, he might tell us “off the record” that the real problem driving him is fear. Fear is a huge motivator in the history of the world. Just think about the number of wars that have been fought because of fear – fear that somebody will steal someone else’s territory or impinge upon trading rights, or challenge economic systems, or whatever. Fear is a huge motivator in the history of the world, and is a force which drives us all at once time or another.
Like Herod, we fear change that might unsettle the world as we have come to know it. The world may not be in a great state, but at least it is familiar! We fear losing our conceptions of ourselves and the experience of our place in the world. We fear Mystery which exposes our thin pretense of certainty. We fear what we do not know and we fear even more what we suspect we know all too well.
But it is not too late. It is not too late for us to stand up to our fears and even to move beyond them. Janet Hunt puts it this way:
Oh, we can be easily distracted by the ongoing feud between Jesus and Herod, and we can wonder about how the powers of the world fit into the drama before us then and now. Only Jesus turns his back on Herod. He dismisses him and turns his heart toward Jerusalem. And so we are led to believe it is not too late. Not even for those who have broken the heart of Jesus, causing him to utter an aching lament 2000 years ago, and even today.
“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing?”
Jesus cries out as one who loves completely, and as one whose love is repeatedly thrown back at him. And yet it is not too late –not for the Pharisees warning Jesus of Herod’s murderous intent. It is not too late for the disciples wondering what it all means, not too late for the crowds riveted by his teaching, and the marginalized restored by his healing. And it is not too late for us, if we can get beyond our fear, if we can figure out what it is that keeps us from gathering under Jesus’ wings. Is it our fierce independence, that Oregon pioneer spirit, or the American individualism that causes us to shun a deeper relationship with God? Is it our suspicion of institutions, even of religion which may or may not be as “organized” as we imagine? Is it a desire to cut the spiritual umbilical cord, to make it on our own, to do it our own way?
On the Mount of Olives there is a small chapel called “Domunis Flevit”, which translates from Latin as “The Lord wept”. It is purported to sit on the place where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. The current chapel was constructed in the 1950s in the shape of a teardrop. On the altar is a mosaic, said to date from the 7th century, showing a hen and her chicks, with the words from today’s Gospel lesson inscribed around its edge. As the hen fluffs herself up and spreads her wings wide to protect her chicks, we recognize how vulnerable it makes her. And we wonder about Jesus’ strange choice … a hen? With Barbara Brown Taylor we may ask:
Where is the biblical precedent for this image of the hen? Why didn’t Jesus choose the mighty eagle of Exodus, or Hosea’s stealthy leopard? What about the proud lion of Judah, mowing down his enemies with a roar? Compared to any of those, a hen does not inspire much confidence!
Yet isn’t this just like God in Jesus? The Gospels are nothing if not surprising – turning our ideas and preconceived notions of God and power, of status and privilege, of life and even of death upside down and inside out, over and over again. Again in Taylor’s words:
Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body, her very own life.
Ultimately that is all any of us has as well. We can only shield our “babies” – our families, our friends, our neighbors, and the strangers at our doors – we can only shield our own souls with our own deepest, truest lives. It is not too late for us to turn Jesus’ mourning into dancing and God’s tears into joy. It is not too late, if we will move past our fear and begin to live as Christ lives in us.
It is not too late for us to live our deepest, truest lives… lives rooted and grounded in love and filled with hope. It is not too late for us to live Christ lives which take us beyond all fear. It is not too late. Thanks be to God! Amen.