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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Horrific Story of a Tortured Man - 07/11/2021

This is a horrific story of a tortured man, a victim of violence, lust, honor and shame, power plays, cultural expectations. A man debilitated by the shackles that bound him. A man who could not deny a new and powerful presence of God in the world. A man who lived amazed at that presence of God and the one who made it so plain, so tangible, so perplexing.

It is the horrific story of a tortured man named Herod Antipas.

He is the son of so-called Herod the Great … Herod of the manger, who ruled with a lot more brutality and force and building projects. About 30 years earlier he too was unnerved by news of a Messiah born in Bethlehem, so much so that his solution was to kill all the male babies of the Jews. Mary and Joseph and the infant Messiah escaped and sought asylum in Egypt until that Herod died.

This Herod wasn’t quite so ambitious or “successful” in ways that brutal rulers might measure their success. From what we know of this Herod – Herod of the cross, Herod of the most gruesome last course ever served at a dinner party – this Herod seemed more focused on the ability to do what he wanted and live his privileged imperial life without having to work too hard.

He could be very cruel and callous, to be sure. Jesus reacted strongly to the ways these religious and imperial leaders treated people when he healed the man with the withered hand. “(These leaders) watched (Jesus) to see whether he would cure (the man with) on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And (Jesus) said to the man … ‘Come forward.’ Then he said (to the Pharisees), ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (Mark 3:2-6)

Jesus felt anger and he was upset at the cruelty and callousness of these leaders, especially when confronted with those who already suffered the consequences of their sins.

And, of course, we have the particularly cruel and callous execution of John the Baptist in our Gospel reading today.

John the Baptist speaks truth to power about Herod’s decision to divorce his wife and take his brother’s. Judging from the reactions of Herodias and Salome, they must have felt threatened by John’s bold words too. This unlawful, unpopular and unwise marriage had enormous consequences. The Jewish people Herod was sent to rule over disapproved of his action based on law and custom. And the woman he divorced was the daughter of the King of Nabatea, who was not happy with Herod’s decision, as you can imagine. The move upset the political balance with a powerful neighbor.

When John speaks this truth to power, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife,” (6.18) he is caught up in the imperial household’s web of deceit and manipulation. He gets used as a handy prop in their efforts to do what they want – consequences, cruelty, callousness be damned.

Who cares?

Here’s an interesting thing about this story though. Here’s what makes the story of John the Baptist’s head served up on a platter a horrific story of Herod Antipas too – a tortured man, a victim of violence, lust, honor and shame, power plays, cultural expectations. A man debilitated by the shackles that bound him. A man who could not deny a new and powerful presence of God in the world. A man who lived amazed at that presence of God and the one who made it so plain, so tangible, so perplexing.

Because there was someone who cared. Herod cared.

Herodias had already made it clear she wanted John the Baptist dead. But Herod hesitated, “for (he) 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.” (6.20)

I think this story tells us that Herod recognized John as a righteous and holy man deeply enough that he could not completely turn a blind eye or deaf ear. And he continued to feel this in the immediate aftermath of his cruel and callous decision to put John’s head on that platter. We know this because of is initial response to Jesus and the growing news of this righteous and holy man, and that familiar message that John the Baptist had also brought to the people of Galilee.

Repent! The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news! (1.15)

At some level of consciousness, the cruel and callous Herod knew that message, that promise was not only meant for the Galileans he looked down upon and who often suffered for the sake of his imperial perch. The invitation to repent, to believe was for him too.

And when Herod heard of Jesus, when he heard of how Jesus had even sent his disciples out with the ability to heal and proclaim this message, Herod’s soul must have been shaken. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised,” (6.16) the tortured man said.

In the end though, Herod would not receive that invitation to enter into the Kingdom of God come near. He remained in his own kingdom founded and sustained so often by cruelty and callousness. And he grew fully into the tortured man … victim of violence, lust, honor and shame, power plays, cultural expectations. A man debilitated by the shackles that bound him.

Brief list of Herod Antipas calamities:

  • His treatment of his first wife and taking of his brother’s wife resulted in a devasting defeat in a border war with the King of Nabatea
  • His nephew later accused him of conspiracy against the Roman emperor Caligula, which may not have been true, but Caligula believed it
  • He was forced into exile in Spain and died without much attention – a far fall from the imperial perch he was willing to put John’s head on a platter to protect

All that and so much more, likely, instead of “repent” and “believe.”

It’s worth remembering the richness of the Greek word used for “repent” here. It is μετανοέω (metanoeō). It means to change one’s mind for the better. It involves a turning, a 180-degree course correction, with remorse for one’s sin. It is a whole-hearted move from sin to God. “The repentant sinner is in the proper condition to accept the divine forgiveness." (F. F. Bruce. The Acts of the Apostles [Greek Text Commentary], London: Tyndale, 1952, p. 97.)

So, one might wonder, what would have happened if Herod had turned? If he had accepted John’s invitation to repent? If he had said he was wrong in taking his brother’s wife and attempted to make reparations for that wrongdoing? What would have happened if Herod had followed that inkling of belief that was stirring inside him and made a one-eighty to walk toward Jesus instead of sin?

John the Baptist is certainly a victim of the Herod Household’s cruelty and callousness, their out-of-control, self-serving ways.

And, when we look at the story through Herod’s rejection of the invitation to repent, believe and belong to something even more powerful and life giving than empire, we can see how Herod is also a victim – of victim of himself and his household. A victim of all the sin he kept shackled to himself.

While John the Baptist became a victim in the end, Herod became a tortured victim for all his God-given days, stubbornly walking away from the Kingdom of God come near.

It’s tragic and completely unnecessary, we know.

We know because here, friends, we have the gift of living on the other side of the cross and a Messiah Herod could not comprehend, though that cross bears his fingerprints. We know the cross in a way Herod could not, in the way that proclaims to us just how serious God is about the continuous and ridiculously compassionate invitation we have to repent – turn from sin to Jesus – to allow ourselves to be unshackled of sin, to believe and see – we are living in the Kingdom of God come near already and without end. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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