Memorial of Saint Agatha, Virgin and Martyr

Lectionary: 327

But when Herod learned of it, he said,
“It is John whom I beheaded. He has been raised up.”


The Gospels describe Herod differently, especially with this particular verse. Matthew and Mark describe him as superstitious and afraid. He thinks that John has reappeared as Jesus. Saint Luke's Herod says bluntly, "John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?"

Mark and Matthew's description is not unlikely as Romans in general were superstitious. Livy, in his History of the Punic Wars, cites many of their odd practices. (If you haven't read it yet you're in for a real treat.) Herod was Jewish, a descendant of the heroic Manichees,  but a Roman toady and perhaps more familiar with Roman superstitions than his own religion. 

It seems that Herod was especially vulnerable because he had very mixed feelings about John the Baptist, as our narrative shows. The prophet had openly condemned his marrying his brother's wife; Herod had little choice but to shut down his operation in the Jordan River,  But he also liked the man and didn't have his uncle's (King Herod the Great) ruthless ability to destroy opponents without a second thought. 

He apparently had many second thoughts after his murder of John and the girl's carrying the ghastly head on a platter during one of his bacchanalias. 

This rather long discursus, appearing in all three synoptic gospels, describes the decadent life of the idle rich in Jesus' time. Herod was not a major player in the governing of his people. The Romans ruled through the procurator Pontius Pilate and the soldiers at his disposal; Herod only provided the appearance of Jewish autonomy. He could collect some taxes, pay his bodyguards and party with his family and sycophants -- those creepy parasites who always fasten themselves to the wealthy -- even as the poor looked on in bitter disappointment. Rome could ignore his obscenities so long as he didn't oppose their rule or irritate too many people. 

But sometimes even a puppet king has a troubled conscience. It would not force him to change his ways but it could haunt him with the possibility that God's justice might, just might, someday fall upon him. Perhaps he had heard enough of the Hebrew scriptures to suppose that,
‘The Lord will judge his people.’and It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:30-31)
Twenty centuries later we still hear rumors of grotesque decadence among the idle wealthy. They might not dance for decapitated heads but, for all the responsibility that comes with wealth, they don't give a wiff for the hardworking poor or the helpless needy. If anyone suggests they should, they cry "Classism!" and push their shame back on their critics. 

Who knows? Perhaps their idleness is tormented with occasional nightmares of financial ruin. Perhaps they feel both haunted and hunted by the Hound of Heaven as they party in their gated communities behind armed guards. 

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I love to write. This blog helps me to meditate on the Word of God, and I hope to make some contribution to our contemplations of God's Mighty Works.

Ordinarily, I write these reflections two or three weeks in advance of their publication. I do not intend to comment on current events.

I understand many people prefer gender-neutral references to "God." I don't disagree with them but find that language impersonal, unappealing and tasteless. When I refer to "God" I think of the One whom Jesus called "Abba" and "Father", and I would not attempt to improve on Jesus' language.

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