A Reflection on Matthew 14:1-12 from August 1, 2015
Today’s gospel from Matthew’s starts with these words, “Herod the tetrarch…” This title given to Herod might sound odd to our ears. We are familiar with king, senator, president, duke, etc, but not tetrarch. While it is unfamiliar to us, it would have conveyed specific meaning to Matthew’s original audience. Here is what the Encyclopedia Britannica says about the title: “… In Greco-Roman antiquity, … ‘tetrarch’ became familiar as the title of certain Hellenized rulers of petty dynasties in Syria and Palestine, whom the Romans allowed a measure of independent sovereignty. In this usage it … meant only the ruler of a divided kingdom or of a district too minor to justify a higher title.” By adding Herod’s title, tetrarch, Matthew foreshadows the rest of the passage and sets Herod in contrast to Jesus and John.
Matthew could have called Herod by his other name, Herod Antipas. Instead the gospel uses tetrarch to shine a light on his divided kingdom which reflects his divided heart. Tetrarch also identifies him as an insignificant political player. His father, Herod the Great, ruled over a united kingdom, while he rules over a tiny portion, barely justifying his possession of a title. Meanwhile, Jesus is spoken of in this passage without title or kingdom and yet his reputation befuddles Herod into wild speculations about the resurrection of John the Baptist. This tells me that Jesus’ reputation was far more regal than Herod’s and he was all too aware of how low his rank was. Finally, by identifying him as a tetrarch, Matthew is reminding his audience that Herod only has the limited freedom and authority that the Roman Empire has chosen to give him. Once again this limited freedom showcases an illness of his heart.
Thus the title illuminates the events leading up to John’s demise. It reveals his divided heart, his desire to clutch at any authority he has, and his perception of inferiority, which plays out in through the rest of the passage. Torn between the Law and lust he chooses lust, resulting in John’s arrest. Then his fear of the people wins out over his desire to silence John. However, that fear is overcome by his relationship with his step-daughter and his desire to preserve his reputation before his peers, leading to the beheading of John the Baptist.
Here is the common thread that runs throughout, Herod’s heart is divided. Jesus and John both have hearts set upon the will of God. If that means they are unpopular or persecuted, they are willing to pursue it. If they have to deny themselves, they are willing. They have freedom in their lives, not because they cling desperately to the power or authority they’ve been given, but because they rest in the Father’s authority. They stand secure in their value and worth, knowing that their existence is an act of love on the part of the Father. These are good reminders in a culture that advocates for “climbing the ladder,” “getting ahead,” “having it your way,” and “making something of your life.”
Today, we celebrate the feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori who wrote a powerful little book about resting in the Father’s authority, called Uniformity with God’s Will. I want to end this reflection with one quote from that book for you to chew on for the rest of the day:
During our sojourn in this world, we should learn from the saints now in Heaven, how to love God. The pure and perfect love of God they enjoy there, consists in uniting themselves perfectly to his will. It would be the greatest delight of the seraphs to pile up sand on the seashore or to pull weeds in a garden for all eternity, if they found out such was God’s will. (6)