We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Herod vs. Jesus

Dore, "Jesus Walking on Water"
Source: Gutenberg.org
Matthew chapter 14 tells three stories.  The first story is about the death of John the Baptist, who was beheaded at Herod's order to please a dancing girl he favored.  When Jesus heard that John was dead, he went away to be by himself, but a crowd followed him, and he fed the crowd with five loaves and two fish.  Then, Jesus again went off to be alone while his disciples climbed into a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. In the dead of night, Jesus walked on the sea in high winds.  Peter started to walk on water, too, but then lost faith and nearly drowned.  At the end of this third story, "The people in the boat worshipped Jesus," and they avowed that he was truly God's son.

The three stories can be seen in different ways, and they can be read separately to communicate several different meanings.  Taken together, however, they contrast the way in which empires and rulers exercise power with Jesus' use of power.  The first story portrays Herod as lustful, vindictive, power-hungry, capricious, unjust, and violent.  He took John's head on a whim.  By way of contrast, Jesus fed 5000 hungry people, and "everybody ate and was satisfied" (Wright, The Kingdom New Testament, 29).  Then, Jesus walked across a stormy sea, symbolic of chaos, invited Peter to overcome the chaos as well, and saved him when he failed.  In the process, he told the people in the boat to not be afraid.  They worshipped him as they would God.

Herod was the agent of chaos.  Jesus was the master of that same chaos.  Herod behaved unjustly while Jesus showed compassion.  Each exercised power, but they did so to different ends.  The contrast between the power of empire and of God is stark, and early Christians listening to readings of Matthew's gospel surely heard a contrast between the power of Rome and that of Jesus looming in the shadows of these stories.  God, they heard, was greater than Rome.  Jesus used power to different ends than Rome.  Amen.