During my journey to learn the text within context, I was amazed to note that Jesus often referenced actual historical events. Most notably, Jesus references a couple of events in Herod’s life that would have been somewhat embarrassing to Herod.
In Luke 14:28-33 Jesus says,
28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
These two teachings reference events in the life of Herod, and are quite hilarious in that context. Herod taxed the people at an extremely high rate (some scholars believe the tax rate was 80-90%) in order to fund his extravagant building projects. The teaching of Jesus regarding an unfinished tower is most likely a reference to Herod increasing taxation to fund the building of his two unfinished towers in the Galilee. Archaeologists have found the remains of towers built by Herod Antipas in the first century in Tiberias and Sepphoris, and both cities are in Galilee. Jesus actually lived in Nazareth which is only a couple of miles away from Sepphoris, and it’s likely that he worked in Sepphoris with his father. There is no doubt that Jesus’ audience would have found a great deal of humor in this obvious yet subversive teaching.
The second part of this teaching is also a reference to a significant event in the life of Herod. Herod Antipas visited Rome, and sought to marry Herodias after he fell in love with her during his visit. She agreed, contingent upon the dissolution of Herod Antipas’ marriage to his current wife, the daughter of Aretas, the king of Arabia Petrea. Antipas agreed to the terms, much to the chagrin of his current wife. Upon learning of Herod’s plan and motivations, Aretas’ daughter traveled to her father’s kingdom and informed him of the betrayal. Aretas promptly declared war against Antipas and the two sent their generals and armies ahead to engage in battle, only to result in the total destruction of Antipas’ army. This event was so well known in the Eastern world that the Jews developed a theory about it, and believed that it was God’s divine judgment on Herod for his unjust execution of John the Baptist. It is clear, due to the documented familiarity of this event, that Jesus’ audience would recall this incident and reflect on the cost of discipleship. Again, this teaching would have resulted in humor from Jesus’ audience due to its obvious yet subversive nature.
In Luke we also find that Herod was trying to kill Jesus and he is warned about this by the Pharisees. When Jesus hears this he says, “Go tell that Fox I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.” Jesus boldly confronts Herod, and calls him a “Fox,” which is rabbinic slang for someone who is a “poser” or a fraud.
This is the Jesus we find in the gospels, a brave and brilliant teacher who expertly uses references to the Hebrew scriptures, current political events, and the culture around him. He truly was a master rabbi and master teacher.