“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee…”
The gospel writer is careful to make us aware of the danger Jesus faces. This is a time of political crackdown, a policy of intolerance toward all dissent and a silencing of criticism of those who rule.
That’s a reality that the Church has lived with ever since. When the Church is faithful to her mission and expresses spiritual concerns, this is taken as a political stance; and worldly power looks at the Church and its leaders as rivals for political authority, and is threatened by it. We have to be aware that our proclamation of the gospel, and our pursuit of righteousness will be seen by many people as an expression of politics. We need to be prepared to speak to that, and not be cowed into abandoning the good news, and of hiding ourselves away from a world that needs to see how the gospel is lived; see how it is humanity’s one true hope for redemption, both within history in the near term and in the fullness of time, eternally.
Now there is often inconsistency in how Jesus is seen by the world and its powers. Ask the person on the street about Jesus, and aside from those who make a confession of faith in Him as the Saviour, you will likely have people say He is a religious figure, that is, they don’t conceive of Him in any way as a politician, a political figure in any real sense. Many of our political leaders are quite anxious to reinforce this because by defining Jesus as a religious figure, the Church must then keep to its prayer beads and stay out of anything that the state, or the king, or other political authority deems to be its business alone: “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…” they will tell us—and we must remember that even the devil can quote scripture.
The Church is always looked upon with great favour by worldly powers when it stops talking about the spiritual well-being of people, and instead aligns its message with the political priorities of the ruling elite. Sadly, the Church has done that in many instances and in many nations throughout history. The hierarchy, the bishops and cardinals, and even popes, drawn from a national, and of late, the international elite share a worldview, and so without any great self-awareness substitute the concerns of the 1 percent, or the 10 percent for the mandate of Christ to make disciples of all, and so grounding the lives of everyone in the truth and love of God as a sound foundation for all action.
When the Church preaches God’s commandments, it is being neither a prude in the area of sexual morality, nor a religious bigot with regard to the need to recognize God’s authority, nor insensitive to the inequities that exist in society when it refuses to allow violence and theft to be justified. Fail to follow the principals inherent in the ten commandments and the broader moral code that we see in the scriptures, and society loses its cohesion, and we descend into a universal conflict of all against all. No one has any moral authority then—the rich no longer need to justify their wealth nor the mob defend its violent actions. Everything is justified by only one thing: power. The powerful rule, they take by force, they silence their foes, they answer to no one, and will be judged by no one: not the people, nor their peers, and certainly not by God.
Jesus, as I pointed out, begins His ministry walking into a veritable hornets’ nest of trouble.
John the Baptist had effectively kicked over that hive and released a swarm of complaint against Herod Antipas, the ruler of the Galilee.
It’s often missed what the real issue was between Herod and John the Baptist. Watch the movies to get your history, even Bible epics about Jesus, like The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) or Jesus of Nazareth (1981), and you might not understand what got the Baptist into trouble.
The way it is presented in the gospel can mislead us into thinking it was a simple moral scandal: Herod Antipas wanted his brother’s wife. So, he divorced his wife, and then stole his brother’s wife and married her. Bad, I know, but in terms of the depravity both of ancient elites and the embarrassing antics of modern leaders (e.g. Bill Clinton) not particularly shocking. Why does John the Baptist take a stand on this issue?
Isn’t this just another example of the religious and their moral rectitude accomplishing little aside from stirring up people who would do better to focus on their own problems?
The thing is, this is an indicator of character and a metric of the type of leadership that someone is apt to give. I’m not talking about past moral failings. I believe that anyone can have a checkered past, pull themselves up from the moral gutter and go on to be exemplary. That’s the promise of the gospel: anyone can be reborn to righteousness no matter how low one has sunk. I’m not worried so much about the past sins of a leader who demonstrates both concern for the people and wisdom in decision-making as I am the person who presumes to be able to flout moral standards because they have power, and who make decisions based on how it will maintain or increase that power.
I’m sure we all became aware of those stories of elected officials and bureaucrats who lectured us all on how we were to follow the COVID-19 protocols and restrictions and then proceeded to ignore them in their own behaviour—it was, justifiably, infuriating.
In the case of Herod Antipas, the problem began with his personal lusts and lack of moral rectitude. You see, the wife Herod Antipas got rid of was the daughter of the king of the kingdom next door, Nabatea.
Now, you may know about Nabateans from the ruins of the city of Petra that have figured in some popular movies, such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – that city had huge temples carved, not built, but chiseled out of the rock of canyon walls.
Anyway, not only did they have interesting architecture, the Nabateans held such territory that they controlled access to the eastern and southern trade routes, and so, these folks, and their kings were wealthy, influential, powerful. What a good marriage for the son of Herod the Great… who then threw that away, and by divorcing the Nabatean princess and starting a ruinous war, as the outraged Nabateans came to the defense of their princess’ honour. The full consequences of what Antipas did were beyond simple embarrassment of orthodox Galilean Jews.
From Herod’s sin came catastrophe that had cost the people enormous amounts of money, and lives, and property damaged by the avenging Nabatean army.
Now, as we all well know, and have become quite familiar with in our own day, the ruling elite rarely, if ever, suffer the consequences of their bad behaviour. In Herod Antipas’ case, the Romans came to the rescue; told the Nabateans to back off, and Herod kept his sister-in-law as his wife, kept his palaces, kept his private wealth, kept his power to tax the people, to throw those he didn’t like into prison, to silence his critics, to murder a prophet named John the Baptist.
So, why would someone like Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, be concerned about someone healing lepers, or multiplying fishes and loaves? What threat is Jesus?
Jesus isn’t just a miracle worker or a faith healer. As with John the Baptist, our Lord is concerned with restoring our relationship with God; and a big part of that is to address our sins. Now we know that Jesus offers us a two-pronged attack upon that problem: Jesus provides us with a remedy for sin—forgiveness. He facilitates divine forgiveness.
At this point in His ministry, it is through absolution granted by Him, person to person. That is done in anticipation of what really will make forgiveness possible for everyone, forever: His self-sacrifice that pays the debt, the penalty, however you wish to understand it, that makes good God’s promise of justice and at the same time releases His abundant mercy to our benefit.
The other means of addressing the problem, and what is really for us to be the starting point of our lives of faith, is in our own resistance to sin. We turn to God, rely upon His grace, cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and stop sinning.
And that is a problem for the powers of this world. We ought to be aware of that; acknowledging that there will be little encouragement to righteousness in this life. This is why Christ gave us the Church, the sacraments, scripture and a community of faith for guidance and encouragement.
In this world, sin is a political problem. In this world, repairing our relationship with God threatens powerful people. If we stopped having a culture of constant consumption and acquisition, we would upset the economic plans of our current leaders who’ve so mismanaged things. If we had lives that made time for prayer and moral improvement over mindless and empty diversion, how could we be riled up over silly and unimportant political disputes? We’d be able to focus on those things that are truly important, our goals would be far clearer, and much worthier: a society built on meaningful and productive work that affords us all lives free to contemplate the mysteries of creation; lives that fulfil what the old Baltimore catechism best articulated as the purpose of human life: to know God and to love Him; to serve Him in the life, and be with Him eternally in the next.
As Christians, we don’t need what’s being touted by our politicians as the “great reset”. We’ve had the reset: Christ came and already pushed that button—He called us then, and He calls us now, to repent and truly believe in the good news.