Of all the famous philosophers of the Classical world, probably the wackiest, and certainly the most controversial, was Diogenes the Cynic. He was a man who spurned all aspects of civilized life, and all material possessions, and who chose instead to live the life of a beggar, dwelling in a barrel in the marketplaces of Athens and Corinth. And amongst other things, he is famous for being the only man on record who ever had the nerve to insult Alexander the Great to his face.
The story, which is rather a good one, goes as follows: Alexander the Great, passing through the city where Diogenes was living at the time, spotted the philosopher basking in the sun next to his famous barrel, and went over and spoke to him.
“I am the great king Alexander,” he said.
“And I”, replied the philosopher, “am the dog Diogenes”.
“Are you not afraid of me?” asked Alexander.
“Are you good or bad?” responded Diogenes.
“Good,” rejoined Alexander.
“Who need be afraid of one that is good?” answered Diogenes.
Hearing this, Alexander the Great was so impressed by the philosopher’s wisdom that he said to him:
“I can see, Diogenes, that you are a man in want of many things. Ask me for whatever you wish, and it shall be yours.”
“There is one thing you could do for me,” said the philosopher.
“Anything you ask,” said the great Emperor.
To which Diogenes famously replied: “Move out of the way, you are blocking my light.”
This story always reminds me of the opening scene of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which King Arthur and his retinue enter a medieval village, and encounter a peasant sitting on a dung heap, who clearly has absolutely no idea of the identity of his exalted visitor. “But I am Arthur, your king”, explains the monarch. Unimpressed, the peasant responds: “Well, I didn’t vote for you.”
One of the most striking things about Jesus as we see him portrayed in the gospels, is that, despite having the lowly status of a Galilean carpenter’s son, he is nevertheless ‘in thrall’ to nobody. There is no human being on earth, however wealthy or influential, no authority, whether secular or religious, who exercises any kind of power over him. Because his allegiance is ultimately to God, and to God alone.
And yet, interestingly enough, that did not turn him into either the kind of proto-anarchist you see in Diogenes the Cynic, or the proto-communist that you see in the Monty Python peasant. Because Jesus would appear to have had no objection to the structures and hierarchies of organized society in themselves: after all, it was he who, on the subject of taxation, famously declared “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar”. In the same way, St Paul in his letters urged slaves to continue to obey their masters, whilst enjoying the true freedom that was theirs in Christ. Because human society needs its structures and its hierarchies and its leaders, simply in order to function. Take them away, and human beings will simply recreate them in a different (but probably more hidden and potentially more insidious) form. What Jesus was concerned about was not human authority itself, but rather how it was used; how those who were entrusted with power exercised it.
According to St Luke, in the chapters leading up to this morning’s Gospel reading, we see how Jesus has already fallen out with the religious authorities of his day. He has actively denounced the Scribes and Pharisees for their greed, their hypocrisy, their double standards, and their hardness of heart. They in turn have condemned him for healing on the Sabbath. The more the crowds love him and follow him, the more the religious authorities hate him and want him out of the way. So they try everything they can think of to get rid of him: denouncing him, trying to outwit him, attempting to expose him as a charlatan – and yet they fail at every turn. And so, by the time we get to the passage we heard this morning, the Pharisees have decided to adopt a different tactic altogether: this time they are going to use fear. Having failed to silence Jesus or sideline him, they are now going to have a crack at scaring him off. And so, they urge him to leave Galilee because, they claim, Herod is seeking his death.
Fear is a very primal and visceral human emotion. Its basic function is, of course, to keep us safe from danger, and to prevent us from behaving recklessly. Yet, at a human level, it can also be profoundly disabling, particularly when it is misplaced. Fear can affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally. It can reveal the worst and most shameful and selfish aspects of our personalities. It can distort our judgment, undermine our relationships, and impede our growth. My grandmother had an earthenware sugar bowl emblazoned with the motto, ‘He soars not high who fears to fall’. I have often found myself reflecting on that saying, not because I have any particular desire to soar high, but rather because it reminds me always to look squarely at the nature of my fears – fears which might otherwise prevent me from embracing a new opportunity, or undertaking a new responsibility, which has been presented to me. And it is certainly the case that there can be few things more liberating, than to be liberated from fear.
How interesting then, that the most commonly repeated phrase in the Bible, in both the Old Testament and the New, are the words: ‘Do not be afraid.’ They appear in the opening sentence of our first reading this morning, when God entrusts to Abram, his great commission, and his great promise. ‘Do not be afraid’. And yet, despite that, Abram still finds himself overwhelmed by ‘a deep and terrifying darkness’ which descends upon him. Fear can indeed be overwhelming. Which is why it can have such a powerful and destructive hold over us.
So, to return to our Gospel reading: how does Jesus respond to the Pharisees’ attempts to frighten him away by passing on death threats? Not only is he completely unmoved by them, but he is contemptuous, referring to Herod as ‘that fox’ – dismissing him as despicable, mean and paltry. And what is the message Jesus instructs the Pharisees to pass on to Herod in reply? They are to tell Herod that Jesus will remain where he is, continuing his work of casting out demons and healing the sick for as long as he needs to. He will then depart for Jerusalem – because it is there, in Jerusalem, that his own destiny lies – a destiny that, as we all know will, paradoxically, involve his own death anyway. Although the Pharisees fail to realise it, there is no point whatsoever in their trying to frighten Jesus with death threats, because that is where he is heading in any case.
But, more striking still, not only is Jesus unafraid – but, as he looks towards Jerusalem, and reflects on what awaits him there – his rejection and his own eventual death – his response is not at all the one that we might expect. It is neither apprehension, nor resignation. Bizarrely enough, at the precise moment when he has most reason to experience fear, in full knowledge of the worst horrors that lie ahead of him, the words that Jesus utters are words of the most tender compassion:
‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.’
How utterly extraordinary. Not only is Jesus unfazed and unbowed by the power and the authority of those around him, who seek to do him harm; not only is he completely unafraid to look death, the greatest human fear of all, squarely in the face; but he can actually look beyond all of that to express compassion for those who seek to destroy him.
On the news coverage of the invasion of Ukraine in recent days we have witnessed the horrific consequences of a tyrannical abuse of power: wreaking chaos and destruction, and slaughtering not only the innocent, but endeavouring to slaughter the truth.
And yet, one of the strange ironies about tyrants throughout the ages, including Herod the king, is that they are characteristically marked by weakness rather than strength, and are in thrall to fear. People of real authority have no need to impose their will by means of violence. They have no need to secure their position through dissimulation and deception as tyrants do, because they are neither paranoid nor afraid.
In Jesus we see the life of a man who is truly free. And the reason why he is truly free, is because the focus of his life is clearly and unswervingly fixed upon God and upon God alone, and for that reason he knows that there is nothing of which he need be afraid. And the same can be true for us. Which is why learning to trust in God is so truly and profoundly liberating.
Because it teaches us that ultimately there is nothing of which we need be afraid.