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JesusA New Understanding of God's Son
By Joseph F. Girzone
Doubleday ReligionCopyright © 2009 Joseph F. Girzone
All right reserved.
Herod, the Mad King
It is necessary to understand the type of life people lived in Jesus' day before we even begin to study Jesus' life and the situations and conditions that affected his outlook and reactions to various peoples he would encounter. The territories of Galilee, Samaria, Judea, and Idumea made up the land of the Israelites. In the time of David the land extended as far as Damascus, and into other lands across the Jordan River. Under David's reign there was only one kingdom. Shortly after his death, the kingdom was divided into the kingdom of Israel, which included Galilee and Samaria, and the kingdom of Judea. In the time just before the birth of Jesus, however, the situation was further confused by being broken up into various jurisdictions. A very wealthy and powerfully connected Idumean, who contributed supplies and money to the Roman generals needing local support, managed to convince the Roman emperor to install one of his sons as governor of Galilee. The son was Herod, one of the most brilliant, but also one of the most ruthless, rulers of his time.
After losing his governorship because of his cruelty, Herod schemed to get back into the good graces of Rome. Eventually, he won the support of the Roman general Mark Antony, who convinced the emperorOctavian to persuade the Roman senate to confirm Herod as king of Judea.
After the decree was issued making Herod king of Judea, he went to Judea to take over his kingdom. Judea was a thin strip of land that extended from Jericho and the Dead Sea, north to Mount Hermon, which is in present-day Lebanon. It also included Lake Huleh, the cold--water lake that fed the Jordan River, which extends all the way south to the Dead Sea.
The northern part of the kingdom called Galilee was rich in farmland and fruit and olive orchards, and produced wheat and barley and other grains. There were also extensive forests that provided lumber for construction. Herod took personal possession of all this land and its resources and rented it out to the inhabitants, from whom he collected high rents. It did not take long before Herod became a very wealthy king. He also benefited from the mines, principally the copper mines, in southern Judea. Shortly after becoming king, he undertook the construction of a vast network of buildings: palaces, fortifications, public baths after the style in Rome, and monuments to the Roman emperors, including vast amphitheaters for plays and other dramatic shows that rivaled in grandeur and splendor the impressive buildings in Rome itself.
As great a genius as Herod was in many ways, he also suffered from a pathological insecurity. Suspecting that others were plotting against him, he had hundreds of people executed on the slightest suspicions. To his Jewish subjects, he did the unthinkable when he dispossessed the high priestly family of their sacred positions and appointed as chief priests his own friends from Idumea, men who were not even priests, much less Israelites. He also eliminated the wealthy and highly influential Sadducees from their positions as members of the Sanhedrin, who ruled Jerusalem. He promoted the Sadducees' bitter enemies, the Pharisees, to fill the vacancies, inflaming a political rivalry among them that would last for decades. The Sadducees were well educated, mostly by Greek teachers who instilled in their students a deep love of Greek culture and pagan philosophy. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were totally dedicated to preserving the religious laws and customs and traditions of their ancestors. The bitter animosity between these two groups would last until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 a.d. One of the few times they were to become allies was when they needed each other's help to destroy Jesus. Even their best and sharpest minds could not outwit Jesus' by themselves.
Herod kept control of his kingdom by keeping his enemies in constant conflict with one another. His own family, however, was to become his undoing. He was insanely suspicious of everyone, and powerful members of his family could exploit that flaw for their own advantage. His ten wives were a constant cause of trouble, each one hoping that her offspring would be heir to his wealth and power. His Jewish-born wife, Mariamne, together with her mother, overstepped her bounds when they schemed to have Mariamne's brother made high priest. He was at least a Jew and not a pagan. A short time later the brother was drowned in a family pool, without doubt under Herod's orders. Then, Mariamne's grandfather, who had previously been in power, was assassinated. And finally, Herod had his beloved Mariamne put to death, which he much regretted afterward.
Intrigue in Herod's family never stopped. His wives were continually scheming, poisoning Herod's mind against one another's sons. It is hard to count the number of family members Herod had murdered to protect his throne. By the time Jesus was born, he had killed off practically every potential heir to his kingdom. After the assassination of Antipater, his son by his first wife, a Jewess, Emperor Octavian made the remark, "It is better to be one of Herod's pigs than one of his sons."
As Herod grew older he became more prey than ever to suspicions fostered intentionally by his own inner family circle, whose plotting never ended. It took its toll on him, as he was rapidly deteriorating mentally as well as physically.
By the time rumors began to surface that the coming of the long--awaited Messiah was imminent, he was totally consumed with fear of plots on his life and on his throne. The insane king was in no mood to deal with an avenging king the Judeans had been expecting for almost two thousand years.
The Messiah Has Arrived
It had been prophesied that Yahweh's anointed Savior would be born in Bethlehem, in Judea. In exile Daniel had prophesied, though in a veiled way, that he would be born 490 years from the ending of the Babylonian exile, which was quite accurate. (Dn. 9:24) He would also be a descendant of King David. He would be born of a virgin, as interpreted by Hebrew scholars. (Is. 7:14) His name would be Emmanuel, "God living among us." He would be called Prince of Peace, Wonder--Counselor, and Father-of-the-World-to-Come, among other epic titles. (Is. 9:5) He would also destroy Israel's enemies, establish a reign that would last for a thousand years, and extend Israel's power and influence throughout the whole world, fulfilling Yahweh's ancient promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations.
And this is how it began. One day, according to Saint Luke's Gospel,
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, who was from the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. When the angel appeared, he greeted her with the words, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women." When she noticed his presence, she was troubled by his words, and wondered at the meaning of such a greeting.
The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. And, listen to what I tell you. You are to conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he shall be king over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom will be forever."
Mary said to the angel, "How will this happen since I do not know man?"
The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, and the Holy One to be born of you will be called the Son of God. And, listen to this, Elizabeth, your kinswoman, also has conceived a son in her old age, and she who was considered sterile is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God." (Lk. 1:26-37)
This mentioning of the Holy Spirit is a new revelation involving the nature of God. It is the first time the Holy Spirit is mentioned in Scripture as a person. Mary, who told this to Luke, certainly could not have invented this new concept involving the nature of God. She merely related to Luke what she had experienced at the angel's visit.
Mary said to the angel, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her. (Lk. 1:38)
Saint Augustine said in commenting on this event that the salvation of the human race hung on Mary's consent to God's proposal. There is an extraordinary delicacy on the part of God in sending the angel, and not just an angel, but an archangel. The mission of the angel was to propose to Mary, and ask if she would consent to become the mother of God's Son. That is stunning. It also manifests the sensitivity of God toward the free will He has given to us. Adam and Eve were given free will so they could freely choose to love God. They chose their own independence instead. And their descendants waited for millions of years for God to give us another chance. Now Mary was asked to make another decision that would also affect the destiny of the human race. She was asked if she would consent to become the mother of the Savior, to be the vehicle of our salvation. Fortunately for us her response was "yes," and thus we were given another chance. In becoming the mother of God's Son, she became our mother also, since we are the adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus, who shares his life with us in baptism. We are her children not by a mere adoption but because we have Jesus' life within us. In saying "yes" to God, and consenting to bring our Savior into the world, she has given us a gift for which we could never possibly express adequate gratitude. The awesome greeting of the archangel expressed the lofty position to which God raised this humble young girl. Never has a messenger from God saluted anyone with such sublime praise, as the archangel Gabriel did Mary. It is not the Church who has raised Mary to her awesome position in the drama of our salvation. It is God Himself who so honored her, as was expressed in the archangel's greeting.
No one knows the time of the year when this took place. The introduction to the angel's visit said the sixth month, but does that refer to Elizabeth's sixth month of pregnancy, which Luke's gospel mentioned previously, or the sixth month of the year? Whenever it was, Mary almost immediately left to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country down in Judea, in a town named Hebron, not far from Jerusalem. When Mary entered Elizabeth and Zachary's house, she greeted her cousin. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in his mother's womb. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, broke out into loud praise: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And who am I that the mother of my Lord should honor me with a visit? For, behold, the moment the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed, for the things promised her by the Lord will be accomplished." (Jn. 1:42-45) This is interesting from so many aspects. Elizabeth and Zachary are Mary's relatives, apparently close relatives, as the angel knew that the families were on very intimate terms when he revealed to Mary her cousin's pregnancy. And Mary left almost immediately to visit her cousin and stayed with her until Elizabeth's baby was born three months later. It is also interesting that although Mary was herself pregnant only a couple of weeks at most, Elizabeth, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, recognized that the two- or three-week-old fetus that Mary was carrying in her womb was God's Son.
Another interesting detail concerns Zachary. He was a priest-not just an ordinary priest of lower rank like the Levites, but a member of the elite aristocratic priests who served in the Temple and who shared in all the wealth that was due the Temple priests. This is interesting when you think of how Zachary and Elizabeth's son turns out later on, when we will see him wandering in the desert-like hills of Judea dressed in the skin taken from a camel's carcass and living on locusts and wild honey. One cannot but wonder about his relationship with his relatives in his young adult years after the death of his parents, as he was wandering the countryside as a Nazarite, with uncut hair and a long unkempt beard, an object of scorn and ridicule by religious officials. The relatives knew from his infancy that he was destined by God for something special, but for this? Only his cousin Jesus would recognize him later on for what he was, "the greatest prophet born of woman," in spite of his appearance.
When Mary returned to Nazareth three months into her pregnancy, to the more perceptive and inquisitive among the townsfolk, her pregnancy must have shown. Joseph was shattered, but being a kind and caring person, he could not find it in himself to destroy her by publicly divorcing her. While he considered divorcing her quietly, an angel appeared to him and told him the story of God's plan, and that he should not worry about taking Mary into his home, because the child to be born of her would be the Son of God, and should be called Jesus. On the surface, the story is hard to believe, but as Franz Werfel wrote in the beginning of his novel The Song of Bernadette, "for those who have faith, no explanation is necessary. For those without faith, no explanation is possible." One can only wonder what Mary and Joseph endured from the townsfolk. Ancient Jewish writings still carry the old tales down to the present time.
At that time a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken up throughout the whole Roman world. This was during the reign of Cyrinus, governor of the Roman province of Syria. Each person had to go to his own town, the town of his ancestors, and register. Since Bethlehem was the town of Joseph's ancestors, the house of David, he and Mary eventually had to leave Nazareth and make the long trip to Bethlehem in Judea, a trip of almost a hundred miles. So, joining up with a caravan on its way to Jerusalem, they began their long trek.
Excerpted from Jesus by Joseph F. Girzone Copyright © 2009 by Joseph F. Girzone. Excerpted by permission.
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