Monday, July 16, 2012

Herod Antipas

Yes, you have the notorious figure of Judas Iscariot, whose name is synonymous with the word betrayal, and you have Pontius Pilate, whose dirty deeds landed his name in the Creeds of the Christian faith, but for my money in the New Testament there is no greater rogue, villain, or pathetic buffoon than Herod Antipas who ordered the execution of John the Baptist.

One of multiple sons of Herod the Great, Antipas was not held in high regard even by his father.  Daddy ruled over much of what we call the Holy Land, but when his two oldest sons were executed and the third in line tried to poison him, Herod the Great had to choose a successor from what was left of the litter, which apparently was not much.  Dividing up his kingdom, he gave Archelaus rule over the choice land of Judea and Jerusalem while Antipas and Philip received control and lesser titles over more backwater regions to the north.

With what political shrewdness he possessed, Antipas arranged to marry the daughter of a king who ruled a region on the eastern border of his territory, thus giving him some measure of assurance he would not be exposed to a direct attack from that direction.  That was one of his two crowning achievements.  The other related to lavish building projects; first a royal city called Sepphoris and then a seaside capital called Tiberius, which Antipas named after the emperor.  Both projects were funded through extreme taxation and built by local laborers paid peasant wages.  It is likely that Jesus, being a carpenter by trade, did work at one or both sites.

But Antipas found ways to mess up even these few high points on his résumé.  He littered his building projects with statues and imagery that inflamed the religious passions of the local Jewish population.  That combined with exorbitant tax rates created a highly volatile situation.  But this offense was to a people with limited ability to strike back. 

What Antipas did to his brother and his father-in-law did not carry such impunity.  Antipas fell in love with his brother’s wife, Herodias.  He divorced his first wife in order to marry her, even though in addition to being his sister-in-law Herodias was also his niece.  When political stupidity, moral weakness, and personal passion meet in action nothing good can follow.  Antipas’ ex father-in-law sent an army after him and you will not be surprised to learn that Philip, the ex-husband, joins in the effort against his brother.  Antipas’ forces were soundly routed to the degree that the Emperor had to send troops to maintain order and peace. 

All of this want and waste did not sit well with Jews being occupied by the Roman governing apparatus.  Antipas’ antics were morally indefensible, spiritually infuriating, and detrimental to every person’s health and well being in the region.  While the general populace viewed Antipas’ military defeat as a sign of God’s judgment on the marriage, it took the fire-brand figure of John the Baptist to say it openly and often.  His approach of tell-it-like-it-is-as-the-prophets-of-old-did won him great popularity with the masses and incurred the deep ire of Antipas’ new wife. 

You heard the reading this morning.  She encouraged her husband to have John arrested, which he did.  But for reasons unknown, he came to like talking with John.  Did they converse about politics, morals, the ancient Hebrew texts which so greatly informed the ministries of both John and Jesus?  Or was John more like a modern day therapist who skillfully guided Antipas through all of his hang-ups and helped him move toward maturity?  Well, this is doubtful.  The narrative does not give us a single clue as to the gist of their conversations, but this we do know… Herodias hated that they talked and she hated John. 

You know about the party.  You know about how a drunken Antipas and his cronies were charmed by the erotic dancing of Herodias’ daughter.  You know about his vow and her consult with her mother.  You know about Herodias’ gruesome request.  And you know about one of the more senseless, meaningless executions in the annuls of human history.  What kind of man runs his personal and professional affairs in such a manner?  Only a truly clueless, pitiful figure who was born into a position far exceeding his capabilities. 

The shockingly brutal, senseless death of John had an extraordinary affect on Jesus.  Luke’s gospel tells us that he immediately withdrew to Bethsedia, a city on the northern end of the Sea of Galilee just over the border from Antipas’ territory.  From our vantage point in history we might view Jesus as invincible, but at this moment he was anything but that.  Trying to keep a low profile proved to be impossible because people by the thousands kept flocking to his location.  A group of Pharisees, perhaps from the local area, came to Jesus and told him that Antipas planned to kill him.  Jesus famously replier, “Go and tell that fox that that I am casting out demons and healing people and on the third day I will accomplish my purpose.”

But it was not yet the ‘third day’, so Jesus, knowing his life was in danger this close to Antipas’ reach, journeyed due north thirty miles to the head waters of the Jordon River, a rugged mountainous region dotted with small villages known as Caesarea Philippi.  He would emerge from this place of seclusion with his ‘face set toward Jerusalem.’  There, once arrested, he would stand before Anitpas in silence, not speaking a single word as he stared into the contemptible eyes of the wretched man who ordered the execution of John, his friend, comrade, and cousin.  Surely it was a gaze that could have blistered varnish off a table; the kind of look none of us wants to experience at the final judgment.  Antipas, for his part, has his prisoner dressed in purple robes and adorned with a plated crown of thorns.  He allows his soldiers to prance around Jesus sarcastically hailing him as king while they spit on him and beat him. 

What can you say about such a person?  How do you evaluate such a human being?  As I said at the outset, he is the most pathetic person in the entire New Testament.

My own philosophy of preaching is that every sermon should answer a question I call “so what?”  So what does all this mean?  So what should I think or do or change because I have listened to a reading from Holy Scripture and heard a sermon on it?  In my estimation, it is not enough to learn something from a sermon, good preaching always encourages us or challenges us or heals us or enlightens us or redeems us.  I have to tell you I have spent a considerable amount of time pondering and praying over this reading to discern a single worthy ‘so what’ in it and I have to confess that the answer has eluded me.  Perhaps this is a reflection on the complete senselessness of Antipas’ act and the nature of this heartrending story.

Here are a few of the so whats I considered.  Each is valid, but none revolutionary.  If you have another, please feel free to share it with me after the service.

#1.  We are blessed to live in a democracy where figures like Antipas do not automatically inherit power to abuse.  It is our responsibility – civic and religious – to be informed about candidates running for any and every level of office, to support actively those whom we deem worthy, and to cast informed votes.  I am often guilty of doing none of these.

#2.  Moral outrage can be and often is a godly thing.  Recognize that it may – perhaps always will – come at a cost to those who proclaim it.

#3  Bad decisions and bad choices have a way of multiplying and building on themselves.  When Antipas (to use a current phrase) hooked up with his sister-in-law he did not intend to order John’s beheading, but, as we say, one thing led to another.  Each of us faces no greater moral and spiritual challenge than how and when to pull the plug on a process that begins with a single failing before it ends in a total collapse.  As a confessor/priest, I offer to you God’s grace in the form of the seal of the confessional.  If you sense, or if you know, you are heading down the wrong track and need some one to help you turn it around, as a priest in God’s church I stand ready to meet with you, to speak the truth you most likely already know, to pray with you, and to encourage you as seek to live a life worthy of God and all that is good.

Well, that is it.  That is all I have to say about a story so sad that I suggest we spend an extra moment or two in silent reflection before we say the Creed.