From the time John preached his message until this very day the Kingdom of heaven has suffered violent attacks, and violent men try to seize it.
[A crowd has gathered to hear what Jesus has to say about John the Baptist, who has been arrested by King Herod.]
At the time that Jesus spoke these words to the crowd, John the Baptist was sitting in a prison cell waiting to die. This was only one of many violent attacks by violent groups who were part of the political landscape in Jesus day.
“Herod the Great” was elected King of the Jews by the Roman Senate in 40 BC and ruled until shortly after Jesus was born. Herod the Great grew up practicing the Jewish religion, but he was not considered to be a real Jew by the Jews of Judea because of his Nabatean heritage and his decadent lifestyle. He was known for expanding the Second Temple in Jerusalem, subsequently the Temple that Jesus visited during his lifetime was known as “Herod’s Temple.” Herod the Great was also known for murdering many members of his family, including his wife. Because of all of these things most Jewish religious leaders did not approve of him and did not believe in the legitimacy of his title, although they didn’t seem to mind the Temple improvements. It was Herod the Great who learned about the birth of Jesus from the “wise men” from the East (3 kings), sought to kill Jesus, and forced the holy family to flee to Egypt and stay there until Jesus was a young boy (Matthew Chapter 2).
When Herod the Great died, the Romans divided his kingdom among his three sons. Herod Antipas was appointed king of Galilee and Peraea where Jesus lived out most of his life. He is best known for marrying his brother’s ex-wife Herodias in violation of Jewish law. John the Baptist publicly condemned this relationship and was subsequently arrested. The story of John the Baptist’s death is told in Matthew 14:3-12.
For Herod had earlier ordered John’s arrest, and he had him tied up and put in prison. He had done this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. For some time John the Baptist had told Herod, “It isn’t right for you to be married to Herodias!” Herod wanted to kill him, but he was afraid of the Jewish people, because they considered John to be a prophet.
On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced in front of the whole group. Herod was so pleased that he promised her, “I swear that I will give you anything you ask for!”
At her mother’s suggestion she asked him, “Give me here and now the head of John the Baptist on a plate!”
The king was sad, but because of the promise he had made in front of all his guests he gave orders that her wish be granted. So he had John beheaded in prison. The head was brought in on a plate and given to the girl, who took it to her mother. John’s disciples came, carried away his body, and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.
Poor John the Baptist, his untimely end the result of sexual misconduct, lust, revenge, and violence in the hearts of both men and women.
The zealotry movement in the time of Jesus sought to incite the Jews to overthrow the Roman occupation army and its leaders through violence. The leader of this movement was named Judas (of Gamala or Galilee), not to be confused by the Judas who betrayed Jesus to the Romans.
The zealots claimed that God alone was the ruler of Israel and that all other leaders should be overthrown. They resented Roman taxation and targeted both Romans and Greeks who lived in the area.
After the death of Jesus the Zealots had a leading role in the capture of Jerusalem, but they held it only 4 years before the Romans retaliated by destroying both Jerusalem and the Temple.
In the Talmud, the Zealots are the non-religious (not following the religious leaders), and are also called the Biryonim meaning “boorish”, “wild”, or “ruffians”, and are condemned for their aggression, their unwillingness to compromise to save the survivors of besieged Jerusalem, and their blind militarism against the Rabbis’ opinion to seek treaties for peace. They are further blamed for having contributed to the demise of Jerusalem and the Second Temple, and of ensuring Rome’s retributions and stranglehold on Judea. (from Wikipedia).
A violent group, for sure, seeking to advance the Jewish nation through violence.
Although relations with the Roman occupation force were pretty good during the time of Jesus, things got bad later after the Jewish Revolt described above. It was the Roman Army that destroyed the Temple and forced the people of Jerusalem to flee in the wake of the destruction of their great city. Interestingly enough, the Roman Empire was eventually defeated by the savage northern European tribes, another violent group.
So Jesus isn’t just “prophesying” in this scripture. He was surrounded by violent forces, but was promoting pacifist solutions to the predicament of the Jews.
Time Marches On
So time marches on. Crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, warmongers, abortionist killers, on and on. But no good comes from violence.
I do believe that the world is slowly becoming a less violent place as the Kingdom of God continues to unfold. However there still is a lot of work to do.
Today, for example, we have the “Guns and God” folks. According to the Christian Gun Owner website at http://www.christiangunowner.com/ gun ownership is sacred:
There is a huge American community of Christians who know that this country was founded on the principles of the Bible and under the guiding hand of an almighty God. That community believes that the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights were a result of that guidance.
The whole pacifism, turn the other cheek thing that Jesus wants us to buy into is a hard sell to many violence-loving, gun-toting Americans. I’m not necessarily against guns. I grew up with guns and was a member of the Junior NRA. Living in a remote farmhouse in the country, we always figured a gun was a necessity in case there was a rabid animal or something like that. I am very grateful that there are police officers who bear the responsibility of carrying guns to keep the peace. I am, however, against a mentality that elevates weapons to a God-given right. I’m against equating the American Constitution with the Bible. I’m against a mentality that substitutes faith in God for faith in guns. That’s gun idolatry. Guns can’t keep you safe. Only God can keep you safe.
Like the Zealots in the time of Jesus, gun-worshipping Christians can do a lot more harm than good when it comes to advancing the Kingdom of God. Just for clarity, Jesus was a pacifist who did not believe in the use of weapons either to defend himself or to achieve his personal or political objectives. It’s an essential element of his message. Jesus would not want to be misrepresented on this issue. It’s ludicrous. We cannot shoot our way into the Kingdom of Heaven. Violence is not allowed in the Kingdom of God and violence will not get us there.
There was a quiet, unassuming elderly woman named Helen at our church in Chicago who told me about an experience she had. Helen was tending a store when a man with a gun came in and threatened her. Her response was compassion. Helen asked the man what in the world had happened to him that led him to this. She told him that she felt bad that he was apparently driven to do what he was doing. She said that if he really needed to kill her it was OK, because she was looking forward to meeting Jesus. Helen meant what she said. The man hesitated, turned and fled. And the Kingdom of God took two steps forward.
When it comes to the Kingdom of God, violent men are still trying to seize it by force, but there are a lot of little old ladies out there who are busy taking it back for the Lord with faith, wisdom, and the power of prayer.
What does this scripture say to you?