February 24, 2005
All four gospels speak of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. But Luke emphasizes it the most. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ public life is a journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. And Jesus never loses his connection with Galilee, even when he is in Jerusalem. Women from Galilee follow Jesus to Jerusalem. They are witness to his death and burial (Lk 23:49-55). On Easter morning, the angels at the empty tomb remind the mournful women that Jesus had told them “when he was still in Galilee that the Son of Man had to be handed over into the power of sinful men and be crucified, and rise again on the third day” (Lk 24: 6-7).
Galilee comes from the Hebrew
galil meaning “district” or “region. From the time of the Assyrian conquest of Israel in 734 B.C., this area had been associated with the
goyim, the other nations or the pagans. Isaiah uses the term “the district of the peoples (
goyim)” or “Galilee of the nations” (Is 8:23) to speak of the northern part of the land of Israel. Galilee so closely associated with the non-Jew is important for Luke. For in his gospel and in the Acts of the Apostle, Luke traces salvation coming to the Jews and then, from them, to the Gentiles, the nations, the
goyim. Since Galilee was ruled by Herod Antipas in Jesus’ day, it is no surprise that Luke speaks about Herod more than the other gospel writers. No surprise he is the only one to tell the story of Herod’s part in the Passion of Jesus.
Once when Jesus was preparing his disciples for the end time, he told them, “Before all these things take place, however, you will be arrested and persecuted…You will be brought before kings and rulers for my sake. This will be your chance to tell the good news” (Lk 21:12-13). In his presentation of the Passion, Luke shows us Jesus gave witness before Pilate, the ruler, and also before Herod, the king. Jesus is leading the way for all Christians called to be martyrs or witnesses for the faith. He gives the example. We follow.
Herod Antipas knew how to hold on to power. He ruled Galilee for 40 years, first under Augustus, then Tiberius. Herod the Great, the brutal despot infamous for his slaughter of the Holy Innocents at the time of Jesus’ birth, was his father. And the son did not go out of his way to redeem the family name.
When John the Baptist rebukes Herod Antipas for the evil he did and for his illicit marriage with his brother’s wife, Herod locks him in prison. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tells us that Herod was afraid that the crowds who respected the Baptist would despise him (
Antiquities, 18.5.2). And so in the heat of passion and drunkenness, at the instigation of his illicit lover, he has the Baptist’s head served up on a platter. A gruesome recompense for the voluptuous Salome who roused his fancy. The company one keeps does matter.
When people began to talk about the ministry of Jesus in Galilee, Herod becomes frightened. People were saying Jesus was John returned from the dead. His cowardly act haunts him. He can’t wait to see Jesus. “‘John I beheaded. So who is this about whom I hear such things?’ And he was anxious to see him” (Lk 9:9). So strong is Herod’s desire to ease his sinful conscience that he wants to do away with Jesus. Even the Pharisees, not the friendliest to Jesus, warn Jesus of Herod’s intention to kill him. In response to their warning, Jesus returns a message of strong, fearless determination to continue his mission in face of Herod’s threats. He prefaces his response to Herod with these words: “Go and tell that fox…” (Lk 13:32). A strong indictment of the political ruler of Galilee. A correct assessment of a man who is sly and cunning, using deceit to get what he wants.
Herod finally gets to see Jesus in the last days of Jesus’ life. Herod has come down from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Passover. He recognizes the political advantage of appearing pious. Herod is now in the territory ruled by Pilate. Ever since Pilate had killed some Galileans worshipping in the temple, the two rulers were at odds. Before he spills more Galilean blood, he sends Jesus to Herod for his judgment.
What a contrast in judgment scenes. Pilate is troubled within his conscience and tranquil in his outward demeanor. Herod is anything but calm. Like a petulant child about to get the toy he craves, Herod is so excited he cannot stop talking. Herod wants a sign. Satan had asked for a sign in the desert before Jesus began his ministry. The Pharisees had demanded a sign at the end of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Now a political ruler covets a sign. No sign is given. No sign can be given. For sight into the mystery of Christ comes only with faith.
Denied his desire, the curious Herod becomes the sarcastic, hostile inquisitor. “He questioned him at some length” (Lk 23:8). To this hedonist whose evil deeds have deadened any moral sense, Jesus gives no answer. Many questions. Not a single response. Herod faces the most painful of all reproaches. The Eternal Word stands speechless. It is the judgment of silence. For to the ears of fools, Wisdom denies even an appeal ( cf Prov 1:28).
Frustrated and angry, this counterfeit king stoops to the level of the barracks. He clothes Jesus in a splendid robe. Perhaps purple for royalty. A mockery of Jesus. Perhaps white for innocence. The charade of justice. He laughs at Jesus. This pathetic prisoner is simply the pawn of the powerful. Pilate had not condemned him. Herod would not condemn him. The chief priests and scribes want Jesus executed. Herod himself had been looking for a way to kill Jesus. Yet, he lets the opportunity slip right from his hands. But not indeliberately. Pilate sent Jesus as innocent. Herod returns him as innocent. He opts to please Pilate. Herod’s own political clout matters more than the life or death of one just man. Pilate had sent Jesus bound. Herod returns him unbound. Jesus is truly free. Herod is not.
Both Herod and Pilate cause Jesus to suffer. Yet both reap something of the grace of his suffering. “Though Herod and Pilate had been enemies before, they were reconciled that same day” (Lk 22:12). What a lesson Luke is teaching! He is the only gospel writer to relate this exchange between Herod and Pilate. He is the only one to give us Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. And he places it at the center of his gospel. Both prodigal son and elder brother face the unrelenting love of the father always ready to forgive and embrace. In bringing his gospel to a close, Luke shows us Herod and Pilate now facing the overwhelming love of the Father in the suffering and death of Jesus. More powerful than our selfish and sinful ways is the generous love poured out for us in the Passion of Jesus. The suffering of Jesus is the very power of God forgiving and uniting in friendship those who were estranged.