Sermon - 24th February 2013
Complex people, complex lives
Scripture - Luke 13:31-35
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Since mid-December my ministry has developed in a new way. A couple of local undertakers have started to use me for funerals and I have been very busy indeed. They seem to be giving me difficult funerals. Now, all funerals have elements of difficulty about them. Death always brings shock and an array of emotions but, the funerals I have been given this year included a woman who lived such a fantasy life that the friends who organised the funeral asked me not to give a eulogy as everything they knew about her turned out to be a lie. Another funeral was very sad as the person had taken his own life in context of trying to kill his partner. Happily these are the exception rather than the rule, but it becomes quite a challenge to know what to say at such funerals – to try and honour the person who has died and to have some words of comfort for those who are grieving. Even in my less challenging funerals I am often struck by the different impressions people have of the person who has died. I try to get information from a range of people who knew the deceased as we all know others in different ways and I try to get something of the complexity of the person across during the eulogy. Sadly, no one really knew why the person who lied about her life, her name, her illness, her job, and her family did so. The life of the person who killed himself was unspeakably tragic and as I heard about his life it became clearer why he had fallen victim to despair. Nothing could excuse his final actions but they could be understood and set into a painful context.
Herod, whom we meet in in passing in today’s Gospel reading, was a complex person. We hear of him in today’s short Gospel reading but don’t see much of him in the Gospels. He is condemned by John the Baptist and is fooled into having John executed. He is eager to see Jesus but, when he does finally meet him, he is disappointed as Jesus stays silent. He was the King of a part of the Jewish people but wasn’t really Jewish and wasn’t really a king. He is a fascinating character who Jesus seems not to respect. If we go with just what we know about Herod in the Gospels we could be forgiven for seeing him in a one dimensional way but, as ever, there is more to Herod than meets the eye – just as there is more to so some of the people I’ve buried recently. He was, like us, complex, multi-faceted, confused, insecure and rather driven by his inner impulses.
A Bit of History
Herod was a son of Herod the Great. Herod the Great rebuilt the Temple, is in the Gospel of Matthew as the person to whom the Wise Men meet and who, consequently, orders the murder of the children of Bethlehem. He is not remembered with joy. He killed members of his family and many rabbis. Whilst sources outside the New Testament don’t mention the killings in Bethlehem – it was a small insignificant village and the number of deaths may not have registered at the time – he is remembered for being bloodthirsty.
The Herod we’re concerned with today is known to history as Herod Antipas. His father was Herod the Great and his mother was Malthace who was a Samaritan – ie she wasn’t quite Jewish. Judaism is given through the mother’s line so, racially, it was a matter of great dispute as to whether he was, in fact, Jewish. This was an unfortunate reality for one who ended up ruling Jewish people.
Herod Antipas was a younger son and so not destined to rule. However, his older brothers, by a different mother, were executed as was Herod the Great’s oldest son – who tried to poison his father. In his old age Herod decided, after killing off three of his sons, to leave his kingdom to Herod Antipas. However, during his final illness Herod the Great decided, instead, to leave his kingdom between his three remaining sons. Judea, was a client state of the Romans and so the Roman emperor, Augustus, had to confirm this new arrangement. Later one brother was removed because he was deemed incompetent and a Roman prefect appointed.
Herod Antipas followed his father’s custom of building and he is most famous for building his capital, Tiberias, on the shore of Lake Galilee. However, at first Jews refused to live there as it was built on top of a graveyard. He did, however, refuse to have his image on coins issued in his name to avoid offending Jews who don’t make graven images.
Most of this is not generally familiar to us. However, Herod’s marital issues bring us into the knowledge we get from the Gospels. Early on in his reign Herod married a pagan princess from what we now call Arabia (it was bad enough for Jewish people to put up with him married to a pagain) but, on a visit to Rome, he fell in love with his brother, Philip’s, wife Herodias. Herod divorced his wife and, presumably, Herodias divorced her husband. It is against Jewish law to marry your brother’s wife - further it was incestuous as Herodias was actually Herod Antipas’ niece. John the Baptist attacked Herod - condemning him for this marriage which outraged Jewish opinion.
St Matthew and St Luke in their gospels indicate that Herod didn’t want to execute John the Baptist but did so after making a rash promise when following a lavicious dance performed by his great neice, and wife’s daughter, Salome. He does seem to have been rather driven with lust for members of his family. He promised Salome whatever she wanted and she, advised by her mother, asked for the gruesome dish of John the Baptist’s head on a silver platter.
So we have a complex person:
- A younger son of a racially mixed marriage who, really, isn’t actually Jewish.
- A man not destined to rule but, after the murder of his brothers, by his father, he ends up ruling a large chunk of Judea.
- A man who must have lived in fear of his father.
- A man who was culturally Roman – building a Roman city, having the Roman lax view of marriage – but who was a Jewish king – albeit a puppet one.
- A man who pays scant regard to the Jewish Law - he marries his niece and arranges for the murder of a troublesome prophet because he’s inflamed with lust for his great-niece.
He’s a complex guy. It would be easy to condemn him for his murder of John the Baptist and his lax morals – and certainly these are dreadful things to do. But I can’t help wonder about the effect of his childhood upon him. Herod the Great sounds like a monster – certainly the murder of various members of his family were monstrous. Yet I wonder what that level of insecurity does to you. Your family is where you are supposed to be safe – though that isn’t always reality for us. He would have had pressure from the Jews to live a more authentically Jewish lifestyle yet he was tolerated by the Romans precisely because he was, culturally at least, Roman. He cheated on his first wife with a woman who cheated on her husband to be with him and who encouraged her niece to enflame her husband. No wonder Jesus didn’t speak to him – he probably didn’t know where to start!
Jesus and Herod
Herod’s relationship with Jesus is interesting. They only meet towards the end of Jesus’ life but, in this passage, Jesus clearly isn’t impressed with Herod and calls him a “fox” which isn’t usually a term of endearment. We have more complexity with the Pharisees. Normally, in the Gospels, they are portrayed as Jesus’ enemies, trying to trick him. This is unfortunate as Jesus is often thought to have been a Pharisee. In today’s reading we have an example of the Pharisees helping Jesus by warning him of Herod’s intentions. We don’t know if this was a lie, a bit of misinformation or the truth. Herod doesn’t seem to want to kill Jesus. In chapter 9 we read that Herod wants to meet Jesus as he is fascinated by him and, in the Passion narrative we will be reading on Palm Sunday we read:
When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. He plied him with many questions but Jesus gave him no answer. (23:8-9)
A little later on Herod mocks Jesus with the soldiers. He didn’t intend to murder John the Baptist, and seems to have regretted it. Yet Jesus seems to have treated him with contempt.
Maybe Jesus saw him as an illegitimate ruler: a puppet of the Romans who wasn’t really Jewish by birth or faith. Maybe Jesus, like John the Baptist, saw him as an incestuous adulterer in thrall to his dangerous passions. Maybe he was angry that Herod had killed John – a prophet and Jesus’ own cousin. Jesus engaged with Pilate - and that conversation troubled Pilate greatly – but he refuses to even speak to Herod.
Maybe all these things are true – maybe the complexity of Herod’s life was so confusing that he, himself, became lost in his own moral maze. Maybe his life was so complex because he had no compass, no grounding in God and the ways of God to guide him. He certainly made choices which led to much suffering for others and he seems to have been easily influenced by the women in his life – making him rather an unstable ruler.
Our Own Complexity
Lest we feel too smug, however, let’s remember that our own lives can also be quite complex. Hopefully not the same extent as Herod – but each of us have complexity, a network of relationships with people who know us all differently. We can be husband, wife, father, mother, brother, sister, friend, partner, employer, employee, authority figure or friend in need. We often fulfil many of these roles in different contexts and it’s only from a birds eye view that we can get a picture of the entirety of our lives. Perhaps that’s why funerals can be so powerful as a blend of views and experiences of the person are shared and we see more of the person we loved than we realised before – it’s like getting a glimpse of the person in their entirety – the a glimpse of how God sees them, and us.
Only God understood Herod perfectly. Only God understood the pressures on his life, the stress of growing up in that family, the tightrope walk between the Roman and Jewish authorities, the weaknesses, the lust and the extravagant promises. Perhaps in that perfect understanding God saw through the complexity of Herod’s life and saw him as he really was. God sees through the complexity of our lives, allows us to be seen as more than one dimensional people.
At the start of the service we discussed whether or not we liked the people we put on the screen. When we think about each of these people we realise that we don’t really know them. We know only their public persona, their policies, their public lives. We know little, if anything about who they are away from the cameras. So what we like, or dislike, is based on partial aspects of their lives.
God looks deeper than the surface where we are often content to stay. God looks into the complexity of our lives and declares that He loves us, He is for us, that in his love we can grow and develop and become more whole, more rounded, more loving creatures. It would seek that Herod turned his back on that possibility. Our journey as Christians keeps us ever turning towards God. Our faith helps us be refined so that our complexity is slowly turned into a wonderful rich collection of attributes that reflect, in our lives, the life of God.