When Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, heard about everything Jesus was doing, he was puzzled. Some were saying that John the Baptist had been raised from the dead. Others thought Jesus was Elijah or one of the other prophets risen from the dead.
“I beheaded John,” Herod said, “so who is this man about whom I hear such stories?” And he kept trying to see him. —Luke 9:7-9 (NLT)
We didn’t have dating apps when I was a teenager. All our phones had cords and email required a first class stamp. It’s a miracle people ever managed to get together. But we had friends, who connected with other friends, who would report that the curly-haired girl in your 10th-grade chemistry class thought you were cute.
Friends were your character references. Girls traded intel, boys traded intel, and then you took a chance and went out together to see for yourself what this person was really like.
Today, each of us is our own PR department. We write up our own social media profiles and make ourselves sound amazing. You swipe to an interesting looking face and wonder, who is this person? Then you read that they love puppies and rainbows, long walks in nature and quiet evenings in front of a crackling fire, adventure, spontaneity, good conversation, romance….
And you’re still left wondering, who is this person, really?
Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great. He ruled over Galilee and other territories until he was removed from office in 39 A.D., under suspicion of disloyalty to the Emperor. During his reign, Antipas divorced his wife and married his half-brother’s wife, Herodias, leading to vocal criticism from John the Baptist and a shooting war with his ex-wife’s allies. He had his army deal with the in-laws; John the Baptist he arrested and executed.
News of Jesus’ miracle-working spread throughout Israel and had reached Herod’s court. He was asking the same question everyone else was: Who is this guy? Is he a magician? Is he a prophet? Is he going to cause me trouble? There’s no record that Herod Antipas ever got his question answered.
The only honest way to examine Christianity is to confront that very same question today: Who was this guy, Jesus? That was the question that kept gnawing at me when I read the Gospel accounts for the first time as a 17-year-old. The answers are there in black and white, in the New Testament, and more accessible to us today than they were in Herod’s time.
What do we know about people other than what we hear and read and see with our own eyes? It’s easy to be misled, isn’t it? We think we know someone, only to see them do things that leave us mystified or confused.
How often do we misjudge people? How often do we make judgments with incomplete or incorrect information? How often do we pigeon-hole people in the most superficial of ways—by their accent or education or skin color?
I’ve been scanning very old family photos. My sister sent me a box of them, all pulled from Mom’s photo albums. Lots of pictures of us as kids. Lots of relatives who have been dead and gone for decades. My Uncle Bill and Aunt Emily, for instance. They lived on a farm in eastern Maryland. They showed us how to gather eggs from the hens and how to pick blackberries from the bushes behind their house. They had fresh honey from their own bee hives; I remember pouring it over Aunt Emily’s steaming homemade biscuits.
There were lots of photos of my dad. Photos of he and Mom when they were engaged, photos of family picnics and vacations at the beach, of fishing trips, trips to the zoo, Christmases and Thanksgivings. Photos of Dad smiling and laughing, of happy days.
None of them stirred any memories. What I remember are the dark days when he was struggling with life, when he was drinking too much, when he would disappear and leave everyone wondering and worried. I remember his anger, his moodiness, and the day I was told he had taken his life.
I think that’s strange, the selectiveness of memory. Photos don’t lie. He was, for a very long time, a good dad who loved and doted on my sister, my brother, and me. He was happy and had a big circle of friends who loved him. He loved my mom and she loved him back.
I’ve asked myself Herod’s question for a long time: Who was that man, my father? I don’t have a good answer, but those faded old photos have filled in some of the gaps and dispelled some of my misperceptions. All those black and white Polaroids and tinted Kodachromes have helped me edit the story I had written about my dad.
We often create very two-dimensional portraits of people. We rely too often on stereotypes and generalizations, hearsay and rumors and first impressions that never go any further. There’s always much more to people’s stories than we know.
It’s easy to do the same thing with this guy, Jesus. We think we have him figured out. We think we know what he’s all about, based on something we once heard somewhere from someone. And we leave it at that. Herod Antipas didn’t know who Jesus was, but his advisors suggested that he could be some great prophet returned from the dead. That made Herod curious. It made him want to find out more.
What about you?