Historical evidence demonstrates that King Herod was, just as Pilate, not a reluctant accomplice to persecution of the Jews, but was a ruthless dictator, suppressing any Jewish resistance to the imperial cult. However, Herod’s personality in the Gospel of Matthew shows someone who is not bloodthirsty or unapologetically evil. Herod dislikes the idea of murder. He hates John the Baptist, but knows better than to kill a prophet. At least initially. Then Herod is put in a situation where he must kill John or risk losing face. The Gospel says, “The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison” (Matthew 14:9-10). We have all felt peer pressure now and then. We go to another party despite tomorrow’s exam, we ignore that call from home, we stay silent in the face of injustice.
After John is killed, Jesus hides away. The pain he feels is horrible, especially given his knowledge of what is to come. Here Jesus has an opportunity to let everyone down. He can hide away and retreat into himself, ignoring the suffering multitudes that he can help. Here (as in many places,) Jesus draws sharp contrast with Herod. Jesus bears the emotional strain and continues on even though ignoring the crowds would be easier.
In Men in Dark Times, philosopher Hannah Arendt writes about Germans during the Holocaust:
…during that selfsame period in Germany there existed the phenomenon known as the ‘inner emigration,’… it signified on the one hand that there were persons inside Germany who behaved as if they no longer belonged to the country, who felt like emigrants; and on the other hand it indicated that they had not in reality emigrated, but had withdrawn to an interior realm, into the invisibility of thinking and feeling… In that darkest of times, inside and outside Germany temptation was particularly strong, in the face of a seemingly unendurable reality, to shift from the world and its public space to an interior life, or else simply to ignore that world in favor of an imaginary world ‘as it ought to be’ or as it once upon a time had been.
Most of us have not lived through a genocide, but as Arendt herself argues, it took place all over the world. Our weak human condition is like Herod’s: whether directly or indirectly, we turn our backs on our suffering brothers and sisters. We are all complicit in the suffering and death of those we have ignored. We ignore these unfortunates because it hurts us to look at them. Perhaps the panhandlers in the square deserve their situation, and giving them money will only enable them. Perhaps that man was killed unjustly, but we mustn’t make a fuss over it, that would only cause division, that’s what happens when you make everything political, maybe this isn’t a race issue. I have heard many say, on a myriad of issues, that they sympathize with the cause of such-and-such marginalized community, but they think that speaking up would make things awkward at home, or with their roommates, or with their church. They say, ‘this isn’t the America I know’ when somebody mentions the latest family to be ripped apart by ICE.
When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into he villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’
Here Jesus continues his unfailing generosity despite concrete evidence. This time the obstacle is not looking bad or grieving. The lack of food appears like a wall in front of the disciples. Whether we look at this story literally or allegorically, Matthew 14 shows us that we can always give more, despite the death and suffering that surround us. There is always more sustenance that we can provide, more of God’s limitless grace and love that we can share. For can we truly love our neighbor while ignoring them while they go hungry? Our energy as mortals is limited. We cannot volunteer every day while balancing a job and a full course load. But when we choose not to act, we must always question why.
Whose judgment do we fear the most?
Liam Keohane ’19 is a psychology concentrator in Pfoho.