A Reflection On The Historical Context of Luke 14:28-32

Today, as I reflect on this Sabbath evening (or, for the Hebraically inclined, Erev Shabat), I would like to point out the political and historical implications of a few verses in Luke whose importance to history may not be well known.  As it happens, I was discussing this particular passage of the Bible on the phone with a friend of mine earlier this evening, and he was unaware of the greater implications of this passage, and so I figured I would share the relationship between Middle Eastern political history of the 1st century AD and a Bible example.

Luke 14:28 reads:  “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it–lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish.”  Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?  Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace.”

These examples were not chosen by Christ by accident.  As it happens, the same person did both of the things Christ here warns people not to do, and it just so happens that Jesus of Nazereth was his subject–Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea.  How so?  To answer requires a bit of historical research.  Somewhere before 30 A.D. Herod Antipas had divorced his first wife, the daughter of the Nabatean king Aretas, and married his brother’s wife Herodias, mother of the notorious Salome (and the hostility of John the Baptist to this marriage ended in his execution, referred to in Matthew 14:3-12).  Ironically enough, this appears to have been a prophetic reference, as in 37 AD the lengthy hostility between Herod Antipas and his former father-in-law led to open war, where the refusal of the Syrian legate to reinforce Herod Antipas after the death of Roman Emperor Tiberias led to Herod Antipas’ thrashing at the hands of the Arabs of Petra [1].  Additionally, Herod Antipas had some fame as a builder, spending a great deal of his money in rebuilding Sepphoris (a city that had been destroyed for its hostility to the Herodians and its being a base for priestly support) as well as Tiberias, a city built over graves, and therefore impure for pious Jews[2].  As a result, his city failed to be “finished” as a well-populated and successful city due to his failure to understand and account for the religious sensibilities of his subjects.  In short, Herod Antipas forgot to heed Jesus’ advice, and suffered for it.

What does it mean that Jesus Christ was Himself so direct in commenting on his own leaders, but yet without being aggressive to the point in being disrespectful.  In some ways, it is difficult to use His behavior as a precedent because His God-given capacities for insight and knowledge of character are so far above our own.  Nonetheless, it is clear that drawing parallels from the behavior of leaders, including negative object lessons, is not itself seditious or treacherous behavior prohibited to Christians, even if one who criticizes leadership must be willing to accept the consequences of that decision.  As was the case for both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, and many other faithful believers in corrupt realms, that may require physical death.

Nonetheless, the lessons that were drawn from the corrupt and luxurious petty ruler Herod Antipas in this passage are applicable to others.  Many aspects of life require counting the cost and being prepared to finish what you start–that is true for graduate school, marriage, as well as religious commitments.  Likewise, it is vitally important to consider whether you have the ability to win a conflict before you start with inferior means, or else make the most honorable peace possible.  Learning that lesson will help prevent you from being a neo-Confederate whining about the Lost Cause, or bringing a knife to a gunfight (such as being unequipped for a debate because you underestimated your opponent).  Trust me, you don’t want to be that person.

[1] James M. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament:  Exploring the Background of Early Christianity, (Downers Grove, IL:  IVP Academic, 1999), 125.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herod_Antipas (Accessed November 26, 2010).

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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8 Responses to A Reflection On The Historical Context of Luke 14:28-32

  1. Cathy Martin says:

    Right does indeed make might, but it’s best to be wise about how to proceed. In other words, think before we speak, pray before we act, and always do our homework first. Christ’s indictment of those in worldly authority was done in such a way as to render respect for their position while pointing out the consequences of misusing that authority. We would do well in following this example of Christian warfare.

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