The Trial of King Herod

Luke 23:1-12

The name of Herod is infamous in Jewish and Roman literature.  It belonged to one of the dominant families of the Ancient Near East.  Beginning in 40 B.C. the Romans had taken the man known as Herod the Great and forced him on the Jewish people as their King.  He was a great builder of buildings, but a mad man who caused great damage to the Jewish people.

We meet Herod the Great at the birth of the Christ child.  His act of destroying the children was not at all out of character for this man.

We meet the name Herod again 30 years later.  But it is now the name of Herod the Great’s younger son.  But he, like his father is a villain.  The New Testament paints a very interesting set of pictures of this Herod.

1. He was glad to see Jesus

When we begin reading Luke’s version of the trial, we hear words about Herod that might fill us with optimism. Verse 8 reads. “When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him….”

It looks good.  Jesus has a friend in Herod.  Maybe the trial sequence will go smoothly,  But motives are crucial.  He was glad. He wanted to see him.  But why? Luke adds the words, “He hoped to see Jesus perform some sign.”

Herod wanted an entertainer.  He was looking for a better court jester.  He wanted Jesus to walk on his swimming pool.  To turn bread into cakes, to do celestial cartwheels, and all to satisfy his voracious need for entertainment.  For Herod was the playboy of the oriental world.  As with other Romans of his day, like Nero of Rome, he wanted a spectacle to observe, to applaud, and then say, “Do something else.”

He wanted to see Jesus because he was curious. 

He also wanted Jesus to answer some questions.  Luke tells us that Herod “questioned him with many words.”   Herod is in good form.  He has heard about this man and his deeds.  I’m sure I can still hear his questions.  “How did you do it?”  Was it slight of hand? You can tell me.  After all I am a king.  Do you really have strange powers?  Can you read minds?  Do you do card tricks?”  And the questions went on.

Some wit has said that a fool can ask more questions in 10 minutes than a wise man could answer in a lifetime.  And Herod was full of curious questions.  But none of them had any substance.  How do we know that?  Because Jesus refused to answer him at all.  He stood there in silence.  The questions came not from the man, but from the buffoon. The joker had become dominant, and the true man had been suppressed.

2. Herod set him at naught

When Herod’s curiosity is not getting him any satisfaction, he changes his tactics.  Perhaps he becomes peevish and sulky because this man will not clown for him.  So, he moves from a simulated respect for his prisoner, to contempt.  The King James archaic language uses the intriguing phrase, “He set him at naught.”  He made Jesus a fat zero.  He discounted anything and everything that Jesus had been in his first estimation.  It was, no doubt a bad case of sour grapes.  Since he could not increase his pleasure, he simply presumed that the fun would have been flat anyway.

If Jesus will not entertain him, fine!  He presumed then that Jesus was a charlatan, a fake, no body of importance.  He wasn’t worth the time of day, if he will not do wonderful deeds or say clever things.  And so he despises Jesus. 

But if you know the history of Herod that is a rather sad turn of events.  He has reached a new low.

Mark 6:20 tells us about Herod’s attitude towards John the Baptist. “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he observed him, and when he heard him, he was perplexed, but he liked to listen to him.”  Herod was convicted.  He was sensitive to truth.   The man is a possible candidate for the Kingdom of God.

But then John touches on Herod’s sin of adultery and his stealing his brother’s wife, and John is thrown into prison.  Perhaps you know the sequel well.  Herod the entertainer is throwing a party.   His step daughter dances a wonderful dance.  Herod is overwhelmed.  In his rash generosity he says to this entertaining girl, “Ask me for anything, up to half of my kingdom, and it’s yours!”  

The request comes back.  “The Head of John the Baptist, right now, on a platter.”  The commentary of the gospel writer throws a floodlight on the character of Herod. “Herod was very sorry, yet for his oath’s sake and for the sake of his guests, he did not want to refuse her.”  He would not want to be a wet blanket on the fun of his friends, so against his better judgment he capitulates to the entertainer within.

We meet Herod again shortly after Jesus begins his ministry (Matthew 14:1-2) Matthew writes, “At that time Herod heard of the fame of Jesus and said to his servants, “This is John risen from the dead.” And Herod is afraid of both John and Jesus.

But what a change has taken place.  The comedian in Herod has overcome the King in him.  He now despises the one he formerly feared.  Conscience has become so satiated with pleasure that it no longer operates.  He has played with sacred things for too long; the voice of conscience was dulled.

3. He ridiculed him

The final stage comes in this kangaroo court.  Herod moves from curiosity to despising, and then to ridiculing.  He will have his fun, at the prisoner’s expense, if not with the prisoner’s participation.  He had his soldiers manhandle him with mockery.  They clothed him in regal robes and played court to this silent Galilean, then sent him back to Pilate.  He was in no mood to try a case with any semblance of integrity.  Herod is his name, and pleasure is his game, and a court case would spoil his day.  So he delegates responsibility to others while he gets caught up again in the whirl of social events.

4. The Silence of Jesus

As Herod and his court carried on with endless words and laughter, there stands Jesus before the King.  And from start to finish he is silent.  Not a word. Not a word of wisdom. Not a word of complaint. Not a word of rebuke.  He says nothing.

But why not?  What a chance to bear witness before kings! To penetrate a king’s court with words that might arrest the man and his nation in their downward spiral to destruction.  Why does Jesus not say anything?  

He was willing to reason with Pilate.  He was prepared to speak to Caiphas.  Why would he not speak to Herod? Because Herod was not listening. His words were only wanted for entertainment value.  Jesus knew that to cast pearls before swine would be a terrible waste, and only add to Herod’s gargantuan need to keep his “Comedy Club” going.

Oh, if Herod had been a candid inquirer, if his questions had been those of a seeking mind, if they had come from a man struggling to be true to himself, Jesus would have answered.

If Herod had come with remorse over the treatment of John, or guilt over his marriage to Herodias, if he had come with a heart broken over his family’s crimes, Jesus would have spoken words that healed.  But to the clowning king, no words were of any use.  He would not refuse to speak to a beggar or a criminal on a cross, but he would not encourage the idle curiosity of a king.


But why do I speak words about a clowning king to this congregation during the Lenten season of the year?  Because the Herodian disease lingers on 2,000 years later. We too live in a world where entertainment is king.  The amount of resources, time and energy we spend on the entertainment of ourselves in our Western culture is prodigious.  Our home entertainment centers include T.V.s, VCR’s Compact Disks players, radios, tape players, record players.  Even our computers, intended for serious work, are now having games installed for our entertainment. 

We pay our largest salaries to sports, music and movie personalities because entertainment is so highly prized among us. But we say, entertainment is good.  Work-a-holism is no virtue.  All work and no play not only makes Jack a dull boy.  It damages relationships and causes unending stress to body, mind and spirit.  Entertainment has significant value.

But, when pleasure becomes the be-all to end-all, and the ultimate value in our lives, then we have become Herod-like.  And the voice of God will not be heard.   There are moments for clowning. There are to be times when fun should be our focal point. But humour often hides us from each other. Humour can blunt the seriousness of life. Let us beware of making pleasure our god, and the search for escape our life’s preoccupation.  Let us beware of making frivolous, matters that call for our best thinking and truest responses.  

There is a passage in the book of Genesis that should stand as a warning sign to us all. (Genesis 19:12-14) It comes from the life of Lot, the nephew of Abraham.  Sodom and Gomorrah are about to enter into judgement.  Lot is warned to get his family and flee to the hills.  He speaks to his two daughters and then the young men engaged to his daughters.  But Genesis reads, “He seemed to his future sons-in-law to be jesting.”  And they refused to take Lot seriously, and so perished.  I wonder if Lot had been such a clown, that when he was serious, no one could believe it.   

Beware the Herod syndrome.  Beware the disease of Lot. Beware the frivolizing of life.   And if seeking pleasure has become too central in your life, then this season of Lent is a wonderful time to confess what is happening to you to God and ask him to make helping others more important to you than your own pleasure.