A Sympathetic Villain

A Sympathetic Villain

There’s a pretty classic ad campaign running right now that’s worth sharing (watch them all if you can):

I don’t get paid referrals by DirecTV, but these ads do really well to reveal a simple truth: our choices have consequences, and sometimes totally unintended consequences. Seemingly small things can take on greater influence, or build and build, and lead us eventually to someplace we never intended to go.

It is also a huge core message of Scripture that how we live matters, and what we choose matters deeply, and that sometimes one thing leads to another. A passage in Mark 6 gets at this very interaction between a person’s intentions, a person’s choices, and everything that follows. And it gets a good deal more serious than a DirecTV commercial. In it, we’re going to meet a man named Herod.

Up front, know that this is NOT Herod “the Great.” It was Herod the Great we hear about at Christmastime, who tangled with the wise men and plotted to kill baby Jesus. Certainly a villain. But today’s “Herod” is one of his sons, Herod Antipas, who was in charge of the part of the kingdom called Galilee. When Galilee started to buzz about Jesus, after the miraculous things he’d been doing, we see here how Herod Antipas reacts to the news, and we learn some important backstory.

Read Mark 6:14-29 here.

Ohhh, Herod. In a sense he is certainly his own brand of villain in this story, isn’t he? He had jailed and then essentially murdered someone. And not just anyone, but John the Baptist, who was Jesus’ close cousin. John whom God had sent to prepare the way for the Messiah. John that Jesus called greatest among those born to women, saying he was more than a prophet. John, thrown in jail for Herod’s fool reasons, and killed in a grizzly way in a dungeon in the prime of his ministry and life. It is tragic that this stout-hearted wild man of God was beheaded for the party-goers because a young girl did a good dance. Let that establish Herod’s villainous side.

But at the same time, it sounds like Herod is not completely rotten. If you hear it, he hadn’t wanted to kill John, rather he protected him. He saw John as righteous and holy, he liked to listen to him even if it perplexed him. But Herod was manipulated by people nearby. So, in a small way, I can see Herod at least as a sympathetic villain. Now, what do I mean by that? Consider your favorite stories, movies, books, and see if you can find a favorite villain or two in there. Imagine them. Are some of them the kind that you actually find yourself pulling for sometimes, or feeling bad for, or hoping for? That’s the sympathetic villain.

Think, for example, about monsters like King Kong or Frankenstein. They get a bad wrap because they cause a lot of carnage, sure, but if you know their stories they ultimately just wanted to be left alone, didn’t they? Poor old beasts. Or, picture those villains who are just total buffoons and blunderers. In cartoon terms, you have your Dick Dastardly (with his sinister chuckle), or Wile E. Coyote, or Dr. Doofenshmirtz for you “Phineas & Firb” watchers. These are the ones who always get foiled, and after awhile it begins to be pitiful – we almost want them to win just once. Then, going deeper, there are villains with a kernel of goodness you can just see inside them, and we hope for their redemption – I’m thinking Darth Vader. Last, there are those characters whose dark circumstances and sufferings have helped twist them into their dark selves – like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings or the Wicked Queen in the recent Snow White and the Huntsman. They’re all heinous beings who do terrible things, but still sometimes we can sympathize or relate to them. And I think that is a good thing.

Is it good for us to go too far and really start to overly-identify with the villain? Maybe not. Should we go home and emulate them? Negative. Should we dwell on our villainous qualities, and beat ourselves up with guilt? No. But, relating to them can probably make us more graceful people. And, even more, I bet if we recognize the fine line between us and the villain, and realize that if not for a few choices this way or that we could be very similar, we might be more intentional about choosing goodness, and love, and the kingdom of God. We, like them, make choices between right and wrong all the time and we all know what it is to be tempted. We even all know what it is to choose poorly and do villainous things, repeatedly. So, recognizing that great potential for good or for evil in us, can we take ourselves a little more seriously?

Take a look at Herod. I bet, in him, we can learn about ourselves. Thinking through some of his choices, if you can relate or have ever done similarly, then let this be confessional to God:

  1. Herod was shaped deeply by his childhood and surroundings. He was a prince. Imagine the culture of the royal court. He was a son of the villainous “Herod the Great,” one of many sons who were competing for power, and one of many kings competing for the favor of the Roman Emperor. These surroundings seem to be part of why he made his choices.
    Have any of us ever been shaped by our childhood, upbringing, culture and surroundings? Do we ever get so wrapped up in our world and ways that we fail to see what God is really doing?
  2. Next, Herod did and took what he wanted. John’s original beef with Herod was that he had taken his brother Philip’s wife to be his own, even though they were closely related and both were still basically married.
    Have any of us ever pursued or taken or done something, knowing it to be wrong, because we still just WANTED to?
  3. Then, Herod took offense that John was holding him accountable for what he’d done. He became obstinate, and clung to his mistake, and it made him compromise himself by arresting John over it.
    Have any of us ever become obstinate and refused to acknowledge or deal with wrongdoing?
  4. Finally, Herod got so full of himself at the party that he spoke too far – he let his mouth write a check that his hind-parts really couldn’t cash. Not only that but because he was so concerned about what the courtiers would think of him, he chose the murder of a holy man.
    Have any of us ever opened our mouths so wide that it caused harm, or said and done harmful just because other people were watching?

The answer, over and over, is yes.

That’s step #1 — you and me, confessing some common ground between Herod Antipas and ourselves. And we don’t stop there. We don’t just let the guilt overwhelm us, or label ourselves scoundrels, or resign to that fate. Step #2 is to decide to do differently. After all, do we believe that God’s grace is enough to set us free and totally redeem the worst parts of us all? Yes. Do we believe that the kingdom of God is still alive and well and arriving today, as much as it was back then? Yes. Then much is still at stake.

In closing, the most tragic part of Herod’s story, to me, was how being caught up in all of this mess made him completely missed what God was actually doing. I mean, Herod happens to be alive during that brief stint when God physically walked on earth. Not only that, Herod ruled that small part of the world where God-in-person spent much of his life and ministry. Jesus, the Chosen One so long hoped for, had come and was at work in Herod’s very own territory. Herod was in a prime position to help advance God’s mission, to serve, to be humble and follow. But instead, when he hears about Jesus, his first thought is that the ghost of John the Baptist had come back to get him.

For all of that, I say let’s sympathize with Herod, if it means we take account of who we are, where we’re stationed in life, what communities are around us, and how God is working and calling us to participate in the coming kingdom. Today, always, as long as we breathe, we have a chance to speak, act, and live differently. So, let’s be mindful of even the little steps we take, the smallest choices that lead ultimately to bigger situations.

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