There is a curious episode recounted only in Luke’s Gospel, in which Jesus is sent before Herod by Pontius Pilate. Herod Antipas was the same man who had John the Baptist arrested and beheaded. He was also the son of Herod the Great, who had ordered the slaughter of innocents and from whom the Holy Family fled to Egypt.
“Herod was glad to see Jesus; he had been wanting to see him for a long time, for he had heard about him and had been hoping to see him perform some sign. He questioned him at length, but he gave him no answer.”
Herod is glad to see Jesus. He is attracted to this “prophet” and hopes to learn more about him. Though Herod was a man beholden to Roman power, he was not immune to curiosity about this religious figure. It’s perhaps a shallow interest – he’s hoping to see Jesus perform some sign or miracle – but it’s a long-standing fascination with something he does not understand and about which he hopes to know more.
But Herod’s questions do not receive the answers he was hoping for. And so Herod’s gladness eventually sours into contempt: “Herod and his soldiers treated him contemptuously and mocked him, and after clothing him in resplendent garb he sent him back to Pilate.”
This episode takes on a new light in the context of an earlier passage, which prefigures Herod’s meeting with Jesus. Earlier in the Gospel, immediately after Jesus sends the Twelve to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom and just before he feeds the 5,000, Luke tells us that Herod was perplexed by the stories he had heard about Jesus:
Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was greatly perplexed because some were saying, “John has been raised from the dead”; others were saying, “Elijah has appeared”; still others, “One of the ancient prophets has arisen.” But Herod said, “John I beheaded. Who then is this about whom I hear such things?” And he kept trying to see him.
Interestingly, Herod’s curiosity about Jesus is piqued by the same rumors that Jesus asks his disciples about just a few lines later: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” The answers the disciples give are the same as those Herod has heard: “They said in reply, ‘John the Baptist; others, Elijah’; still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.’” This of course is followed by Jesus’ direct question: “Who do you say that I am?” to which Peter replies, “The Messiah of God.”
All of this, it is worth noting, is followed immediately by Jesus’ first prediction his Passion and by a warning to the disciples about the costs and conditions of their discipleship:
If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the Holy Angels.
In this context, we can see Herod as a type of anti-disciple: someone fascinated by and attracted to Jesus, but unwilling or unable to grasp Who Jesus is, even as the Lord stood there before him in silence. Herod is not exactly the worldly power, but a semi-religious power beholden to the worldly power. In the end, Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate, that is, hands him back to the worldly power for judgment.
How often do we see Christians imitate Herod? How often does an initial attraction to Jesus, an encounter with Jesus in his Church, end with an attempt to make him more presentable to the world? How often is our Lord examined, prodded for answers, and ultimately treated with contempt and derision? How often do we Catholics, not wanting to lose esteem in the face of worldly powers, become ashamed of Him and His words?
The problem with the world is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The greatest obstacle to the Kingdom is not the Church or her teachings. It is sin: the sins of Christians – yours and mine – that impede the Good News and the sins of the world, and lead many to reject the Gospel.
Overconfidence, hubris, and all kinds of triumphalism are pitfalls of excess for Christians to guard against. So, too, is an attitude of defensiveness, which suggests some deficiency: anxiety, insecurity, impatience, or even a lack of faith. Defensiveness usually stems from doubt and fear, a fact we recognize readily in the defensiveness of others but less easily in ourselves. Between the excess of triumphalism and the deficiency of defensiveness is the virtuous mean of confidence in Christ Crucified.
The task of all Christians is to allow ourselves to be transformed by our meeting with Christ. We know what this transformation entails because he told us: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” This is the opposite of Herod, who demand that Christ conform to his expectations and hopes, that he perform or teach as Herod wants him to.
The Church cannot preach the Good News if our efforts to do so are underwritten by an embarrassment at the supposed backwardness of the Catholic faith. We cannot be disciples if we are ashamed of the truths the Church proclaims. Constant efforts to dress the Church in garb more acceptable to worldly tastes do not serve Christ or his Kingdom. When we do this, we are like Herod sending Jesus away in contempt – sending him back to the world’s condemnation.
*Image: Jesus Before Herod by Schiavone (Andrea Meldolla), c. 1560 [Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy]
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Anthony Esolen’s All the World’s a Stage
David Warren’s Sin & the Rock