I want you to read the 14th chapter of Matthew. It’s not that long, and it is filled with insight for a world like ours. It’s basically the story of two distinctly different philosophies of life.
The first section of the chapter is about Herod Antipas, a man who ruled the Jews but whom they detested (and with good reason). For starters, Herod was an Edomite (only partially Jewish) who had power over the people of Israel for two reasons: first, because Herod the Great was one of his ancestors, which positioned the younger Herod to inherit a throne he was profoundly incapable of occupying; and second, because he was a puppet king who was backed by Rome. He cared next to nothing for those he ruled. He cared little for their sacred Law. He burdened them with almost unbearable taxes, most of which went to Rome but some of which underwrote Herod’s own self-indulgent lifestyle. And, he was a man who profaned all that the people held dear, flaunting before them everything from incest with his sister-in-law and (probably) her daughter to the murder of John the Baptist. In Matthew’s 14th chapter, it is clear that Herod was also mentally unstable. He believed that Jesus was John the Baptist reincarnated, and that Jesus had come back to exact revenge. So, Herod decided to silence Jesus before Jesus had a chance to silence him.
A recent Quinnipiac poll underscored the “racial divide” that exists on so many fronts in our nation. (AP News Service, October 13, 2016) A friend of mine who is a clergyman and professor said to me, “It’s all about fear. When people of one race historically have not gotten to know those of another, ignorance morphs into fear. Add to that the fear of the erosion power by one group or the fear of the abuse of power by another, and the result is distrust that leads to distancing that leads to the potential of conflict.” That’s the Herod story, isn’t it? He wasn’t really, fully a Jew so he didn’t really, fully understand them, nor did he understand their Messiah. And a lack of understanding married to a resistance to even attempt to understand led to fear which ultimately led to conflict and a Cross. We know that story. We see it. We read it. We experience it. The question is, what can we do about it?
I think the answer is found in that old cliché we toss around so much. (But remember, most of the time clichés become that because they are true.) The cliché is: WWJD? What Would Jesus Do? How would Jesus deal with people, and what might the results be?
In the second section of the 14th chapter of Matthew, we see Jesus caring for the needs of others. He fed five thousand hungry people who had no way to find food (and actually, when you read the text it was probably at least three times that many). He walked across stormy waters to rescue the disciples whose boat was about to go under. He pulled Simon Peter from those waters when he was almost drowning. And after they crossed the lake, he made himself available to throngs of people who brought their loved ones who were sick and injured and needed the touch of his healing hand. What Would Jesus Do? He would love people. That’s what he did. That’s the counterpoint he offered to Herod. Love, he felt, is greater than fear. Compassion overcomes distancing. Kindness builds a bridge over whatever divides us. And none of that is soft, sweet, or syrupy. It’s difficult to put love into action. It makes you vulnerable in case the other person is not like-minded. But let me tell, if I have to choose between the philosophy of Herod on the one hand and the philosophy of Jesus on the other, I’ll choose Jesus every time.
Some of you attend Marianne Williamson’s Tuesday evening lectures here at the church. One day last week she and I were chatting about the great divides we see in today’s world: race, politics, understandings of human sexuality, and fundamentalist religious movements. She said, “There’s only one thing that can save a world like this. And it’s not government. And it’s not dogma. And it’s not grappling for power. Our only hope if we’re going to make it is to learn how to love each other.” Then we recalled voices who have reminded us of that for centuries: Leo Buscaglia, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, St. Francis, and Jesus who said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another.” (John 15:12) Make no mistake, Jesus knew that’s not always easy. He clearly said it involves difficult things like forgiveness and tolerance (turning the other cheek or praying for those who despitefully use you), and it involves offering kindness to people in need, whether they are like me or not (like feeding the hungry or lifting the fallen from the angry waves or healing the sick whoever they are and whatever they look like).
I guess that’s always our challenge, isn’t it? Either to follow Herod or to follow Christ... either to be fear-driven or love-driven... either to build walls or to build bridges. Herod’s way is quicker and maybe even easier, in the final tally. But Jesus’ way, as difficult as it can be, is the one that makes sense. “There’s only one thing that can save a world like this... Our only hope if we’re going to make it is to learn how to love each other.”