Nefarious Characters – 2nd Sunday of Advent

2nd Sunday Advent Lk 3:1-6

Nefarious CharactersAs you are probably aware, we’ve moved from a focus on Mark’s gospel to the gospel of Luke, long a favorite of mine and many others. Luke’s account is beautifully written, with an emphasis on Jesus as a healer, a forgiver, a rule-breaker (in the best sense), a person who has no trouble associating with many of the marginalized groups of the time – lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and all kinds of broken people. However, before we get to Jesus, Luke feels compelled to do a little name dropping.

We’re told that John the Baptist arrived on the scene “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberias Caesar,” which calculates to 29 AD. Tiberias was a great general in the Roman army and helped conquer much of northern Europe. He ruled from 14 AD until 37 AD, when upon his death at the age of 79, his great nephew Caligula took over. Tiberias was known as a dark, gloomy, reclusive individual and, to my surprise, he and I share the same birthday. Still getting my head around that one…

Now we move to the next person of significance in Luke’s account, as he gets a bit more local, the Roman governor of Judea, the well-known Pontius Pilate. He served as governor, or prefect, from 26 to 36 AD. As governor of Judea, despite the grand title, Pilate did not have a lot of power. He was mostly responsible for collecting taxes and maintaining the Roman peace, especially in Jerusalem. He reported up to the legate of Syria, who had a substantial force of Roman soldiers at his command. Pilate comes across as a cowardly figure in the gospels, a man who would rather placate the crowds than set free an innocent person. But also understand that Pilate’s first concern is his reputation, and the best reputation in Roman eyes is a quiet province. Executing an innocent man for the sake of peace is not a big leap for him.

Now we come to Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee (and Perea). During the period from 74 BC to 100 AD, there can be found evidence of seven King Herods throughout the region. The most famous was Herod the Great, who was responsible for building the great temple in Jerusalem. It is this Herod who, according to Matthew’s gospel, slaughtered the innocent baby boys in Bethlehem. We’re told that Joseph escaped with his family into Egypt and did not return until Herod had died shortly thereafter. The Herod mentioned here in Luke’s gospel is the son of Herod the Great, born about 20 BC and died in 39 AD. His nickname was Antipas, and his title was “tetrarch” which means “ruler of a quarter”.

The other three “quarters” were held by his brother Philip (also mentioned by Luke), as well as Salome, Herod the Great’s sister, and Archelaus (tetrarch of Samaria, Judea, and Idumea). You can see that Jesus may have been under the influence of two Herods in his time, Antipas and Archelaus, but the gospels are clearly pointing at Antipas, probably because he ruled Galilee, where Jesus performed most of his ministry.

To round out the Roman appointed rulers, Luke mentions Lysanias, the tetrarch of Abilene, which believe me, is not the one in Texas. Abilene is thought to be a small region north of Palestine, about 20 miles from Damascus, Syria. It’s unclear why Luke felt that he had to mention Lysanias, who has no role in Jesus’ life, but remember what Luke is trying to do. At the time of his writing, perhaps 60-80 AD, Lysanias was a known historical figure, perhaps due to the writings of the Roman historian, Josephus. So Luke grabbed the reference as further validation of the historical reality of Jesus.

Finally, Luke gets down to the last two VIPs in the Palestine of 29 AD, the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. A high priest was appointed by the local prefect and had a very important, solemn role. On Yom Kippur, he alone entered the Holy of Holies to make atonement for his sins and all of the sins of the people. As there can only be one high priest at a time, understand that Annas came first. He was high priest from 6 to 15 AD. After a couple of years, the Roman governor appointed Caiaphas, the son-in-law of Annas, who was high priest for the next 18 years, and played a pivotal role in the trial of Jesus. Caiaphas comes off very poorly in all of the gospels, and Dante depicts him in the sixth realm of the 8th circle of Hell, where hypocrites are eternally punished. Not a nice ending…

So, you’re probably wondering, here I came for a homily and it looks like the History Channel broke out! What’s going on? Recall the audience Luke is writing to – primarily Gentiles, very much a part of the Roman Empire, and likely a bit confused about the roots of this movement called “the way”. Luke is making two points. As I mentioned previously, Luke uses these figures to establish the reality, the historicity of Jesus. These people are in public records – you can look it up. Caesar existed in a time and a place. So did Pilate and Herod and Annas and Caiaphas. Even if you’ve never heard of Jesus, you’ve probably heard of one these guys. Luke anchors Jesus in the world of first century Palestine.

Fr. John made the second point very nicely last weekend. Advent anticipates two events, the historical birth of Jesus into this world two thousand years ago and the hoped for arrival of Jesus at the end of the age. In the context of eternity, where time is meaningless, these two events are then, now, and in our future all at the same time. Luke is proclaiming a simple, profound message. In the caldron of history, in the midst of the overlapping rule of power-hungry, ruthless, cynical individuals, Jesus enters the world. His herald, John the Baptist, quotes the poetry of Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Note the striking contrast. On the one hand, we have these powerful political leaders who maintain control over the known world of the time. On the other hand, we have John the Baptist, a weird looking guy from the desert quoting a long dead wise man. Who are you inclined to listen to? If there’s one thing that God seems to love to do, it is to hide in the realm of the small and insignificant. This point is made by Luke over and over again, and nowhere more so than his infancy narratives. The stars of his story are wild men, ragged shepherds, a very poor but feisty young girl from a backwater town, and a baby born in a barn. You can’t get much more unimportant. Who are you going to listen to?

The story of Jesus as told by Luke happened a long time ago, but the question is just the same today. Who are you going to listen to? We have plenty of politicians who are screeching to be heard. We have movie stars, sports heroes, musicians, and bloggers who measure their influence by how many Twitter followers they have. You can check out their “tweetlevel score”. So many people clamoring to be heard. If you’re paying attention to Luke’s gospel, you’ll know that God is NOT speaking through these folks, no more now than back then. Furthermore, ponder on the fact that to a great extent, each public figure cited by Luke is either an enemy of Jesus from birth, or is soon to become one. So where is God speaking today?

I’ll tell you where. Syrian refugees, the unborn, men locked away and forgotten, migrant children with undocumented parents, AIDS patients, cold and wet homeless people, drug addicts, and the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick people among us. Are we listening to these insignificant people? Are we hearing the voice of God through them? Or are we caught in the big lie that power is important?

I don’t mean to sound overly downbeat. Advent is actually a hopeful season. Just as Jesus came among us in a particular place and time under the rule of some nefarious characters, the reality is that we’ll always have nefarious characters in power. It’s unavoidable. Jesus still comes. Remember that. Jesus still comes. Put that in your tweet!

© Deacon Peter Hodsdon St. James Parish, Solana Beach

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