In those days, King Herod, the Tetrarch of Galilee, increased the taxes on wheat, wine and oil in order to maintain his style of life in court, and please the officials of the army…. The people’s protests were to no avail. The prison cells of Tiberias, where the king had his best palace, were bursting with non-conformist young men and rebellious zealots…
Herod: Where have you put those men conspiring against me?
Jailer: Here they are, King Herod. Not one has escaped the vigilant eyes of your guards.
Herod: And neither will anyone get away from the axe of my executioner.
Jailer: This young man is Abiathar’s son, the Pharisee.
Jailer: Abiathar is at the palace door with two talents of silver as ransom for his son. He’s pleading clemency for his son.
Herod: Clemency?… Did you say clemency?…. Ha, ha, ha…! What’s the charge against the boy?
Jailer: He and a group stole some weapons from the Arsenal of Saphir.
Herod: Really?… He has hardly grown his beard and he’s already stealing swords! That’s conspiracy against his king! Ha! Cut his right hand off with that same sword. That will teach him a lesson.
Young Man: No, no, have pity on me, my king, have pity on me…!
Herod: Take him and inform the executioner… And this stupid-looking guy here, what’s his offense?
Another Young Man: I didn’t do anything, my king, this is an injustice…!
Jailer: Shut up! Is that the way to talk to your king?…
Herod: What crime was committed by this imbecile?
Jailer: This guy gave us a hard time. He runs like a hare. Twice he escaped right under the noses of the guards.
Herod: Well, he won’t escape the third time. Have his right foot cut off!
Young Man: No, no, no!!!
Jailer: This one’s a spy, your Majesty. They caught him last week going over the records of our sales and purchases. He belongs to the zealot movement.
Herod: So you’re a spy, huh?… Gouge his eyes out with a nail and throw them to my dogs… and let them feast on their favorite food.
King Herod Antipas was ruthless just like his father. It was better to die than be brought to the dungeons of his palace… where dozens of men and women rotted in dark prison cells… There was a rat-infested room, firmly shut, a dark and stinking dungeon where living cadavers and lice coexisted and rebels were thrown to die… There was a torture chamber guarded by four hangmen who were tasked to carry out the orders of the king…
Young Man: No, no, no, no, don’t do this to me….! You’re a man like me!…. You can’t do this to me…!
They grabbed the boy, son of Abiathar, and pulled his right arm over a wooden wedge, where the blood of the previous victims flowed….
Young Man: For God’s sake!… For God’s sake!….. Don’t cut off my hand!… No, no….. I don’t want this….. noooo….!!
Jailer: Dammit, cover his mouth and hold him tight!
Young Man: No, no, ….ohhh!!!
After a series of interrogations and torture, some prisoners went back to their homes, ruthlessly mutilated in those prison cells of Tiberias….
Mother: Oh my son, my son….! What have they done to you?… My son…!!
Abiathar: Beasts, beasts..!!
Abiathar’s son, tried to hide his right arm which ended in a worm-infested stump…
Adviser: Has your Majesty been informed about the new prophet in Galilee?… Prophets here grow like mushrooms.
Herod: Prophet? To whom are you referring, you crook?
Adviser: That man named Jesus, a tall, brown and bearded fellow. A peasant from Nazareth, to be exact.
Herod: Why do you tell me this, huh?
Adviser: Because the King must know what’s happening in his kingdom. This Nazarene is everywhere. He’s astute and organized. They say he wants to change everything, even religion! He’s been going from town to town along the lake, with his group, two by two…
Herod: Tell me, what do they do?
Adviser: What everyone else is doing. Conspire against his Excellency, telling the people to rise up against the king, not to pay taxes, and….
Herod: Then why did you tell me he was a prophet? He’s more of an agitator, like the rest.
Adviser: Yes and no. It seems this Jesus is a good magician. He makes miracles! His words seem like honey. People follow him and stick to him like flies… Some even say he could be the Messiah!
Herod: Ha! The Messiah!…. A good for nothing peasant, to become the Messiah!…. My prisons are already full of messiahs, and they still want more!
Adviser: They also say this Nazarene speaks with fire, just like the prophet Elijah!
Herod: That fire can be extinguished by filling his mouth with sand, until his belly explodes.
Adviser: He’s said to be like King David who dances, laughs and frequents taverns….
Herod: Let’s see if he can still laugh when he’s in shackles.
Adviser: They also say… well, they say a lot of things.
Herod: Are you insinuating something? Speak out clear, man. What else do they say of him?
Adviser: Just plain people’s gossip, my King…
Herod: What else do they say about this fellow? Dammit!
Adviser: That he’s John the Baptist, who has come back from the dead.
Herod: What a big lie! John is dead. I myself had him beheaded!
Adviser: They say John’s spirit left his body through his neck when his head was cut off. Then he went back to Machaerus seven times looking for the door. And when he found it, he fled in haste and…
Herod: And what? Finish it, man!
Adviser: And his spirit slipped into the Nazarene’s body. This is true, your Majesty, because this Nazarene speaks exactly like Zechariah’s son.
Herod: You’re a big liar! Why do you deceive me?… Have you heard him speak, huh?!
Adviser: Personally no, my King, but they say….
Herod: I’ll have you beaten for being a liar!
Adviser: Take it easy, your Majesty. You were the one who obliged me to inform you…
Herod: I want this man right away!
Adviser: Yes, my King.
Herod: I want to see his face, and I’ll know what kind of a man is this Jesus. I’ve got acute senses, you know. If he’s a fake, then I’ll have his tongue pulled out. And if he’s a prophet, I’ll have him beheaded…
Adviser: What if he’s the same John who resurr….
Herod: Shut up, rumor-monger! Shut up! You just want to scare me! And damn you, John the Baptist! Even in death you don’t leave me in peace!
That same day, two men came to the house, asking for Jesus. They came from Tiberias..
Pharisee: Are you Jesus of Nazareth?
Jesus: Yes, I am. But, why do you speak in such a low voice? There’s no one sick in this house!
Another Pharisee: There may not be one for the moment, but perhaps, there will be a dead man, and soon. King Herod has been looking for you, Nazarene.
Jesus: Really? How come you know that?
Pharisee: We’re from Tiberias. We’re friends of the king’s adviser.
Jesus: And what does this fox want with me?
Pharisee: He thinks you’re the resurrected John the Baptist and you want to avenge him. Herod is a very superstitious man.
Pharisee: Just a piece of advice, young man. Go away from here. Hide in any village in the mountains, and don’t tell anyone, not even your friends, where you are.
Jesus: There’s something I don’t understand here. You’re friends of a palace adviser, yet you’re helping me flee from the king. Why? Aren’t you so well-paid by Herod, that you need not look for other means?
Pharisee: No, no, it’s not that, Nazarene. Last week, they cut off the right hand of a nephew of mine, son of the Pharisee, Abiathar. Tears rolled down my eyes when I saw that worm-infested wound of his, and I promised myself to help any Israelite escape from the claws of this assassin, whatever his ideas might be.
Jesus: I understand… What about you, why don’t you say anything? Did you see the mutilated boy?
Pharisee: He’s my son. I’m Abiathar, the Pharisee.
Jesus, enraged, clenched his fists and became teary-eyed…
Pharisee: Get away from here, young man, if you don’t want the same thing to happen to you, or it might even be worse.
Jesus: No, I’m not going away.
Pharisee: Believe us, young man. Your life is in danger. Don’t you understand?
Jesus: Yes, I do, and I thank you for having informed me. But I’m not leaving. When you go back to Tiberias and see that fox in his den of gold and marble, tell this on my behalf: that he can’t stop me from doing what I’m doing now, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow; that I’m not scared of him nor of his threats, because until now no prophet has ever died in Galilee, but in Jerusalem.
Pharisee: Don’t be crazy, Nazarene, and listen to us…
At that moment, my brother James and I came back from the wharf. Even our neighbors peeped through the house to take a glimpse at our visitors…
John: Is there anything wrong, Moreno? What seems to be the problem?
Jesus: Nothing. Herod is not satisfied with the blood that has been shed. He wants more. He wants to drink of the blood of all the children of Israel!
John: Scoundrel, that’s what he is! Look what he’s done with the taxes: he wants to drain all our pockets of the little money we have, for his mistresses’ jewelry.
A Woman: The king is an adulterer. He lives with his sister-in-law, his brother Philip’s wife. What a vicious man!
Jesus: That would be the least, neighbor. He can do anything he pleases with his life, but not with his neighbor’s. That man is a stumbling block. There’ll be no peace here while he’s on the throne, robbing the people and torturing our children.
As usual, the barrio folks started milling in the street in order to listen to Jesus…
John: Jesus, let’s go inside first.
Jesus: No, John. The people must know what’s happening in our country. They had the right hand of this man’s son cut off, do you understand? If it were your own hand, would you just keep quiet?
John: Okay, Moreno, okay, but there are lots of squealers around. You can never tell…
Jesus: Hey, all of you, listen to me! If anyone here is a friend of this fox, disguised as the king, tell this to him on my part: he who lives by the sword, shall perish by the sword… You cut off the right hand of Abiathar’s son, God will throw you into the fire with your two hands. You cut off a foot of Manasses’ son, the Lord will throw you into the fire with your two feet. You gouged somebody else’s eyes with a nail, pulled out fingernails with a pair of pliers, castrated men and raped women in jail, or mutilated the sons of Israel. God will throw you and your whole body into hell, where the worms will feast on it. You had the prophet, John, beheaded. God will have a large millstone tied around your neck and have you thrown into the depths of the sea. You and the rest of the criminals do not deserve to breathe the air nor step on this ground. Tell Herod all this on my behalf…
Jesus turned and went inside the house. He was so enraged. He sat on the floor, buried his face in his hands and remained quiet for a long time.
About twenty years before Jesus was born, King Herod established the city of Tiberias, on the left bank of Lake Galilee. It was named in honor of Tiberius, the Roman emperor. He then made it the capital of Galilee, instead of Sepphoris. Tiberias was the regular residing place of Herod Antipas, where he had his palace built. For many reasons it was a hated city, not only because of the king’s presence but because it was built on a cemetery – and therefore, for the Pharisees, “impure” – and dedicated to the king of Rome. For this reason, the nationalists found it a despicable place. Today, Tiberias is one of the most populated and modern cities of Galilee, with several hotels, good restaurants and sports centers to boast of. (Water skiing and sailing are regular sports on this lake).
In the basement of the palace – as was common during the period – were the dungeons that served as a prison for Herod’s foes. Although in Israel torture did not exist as a form of punishment for prisoners, Herod the Great employed excessive torture during his reign, in violation of the Jewish law. His son, Herod, the contemporary of Jesus, brutal as he was, followed in the footsteps of his father. His greed for power and the diminishing popularity of his reign, dependent on Rome, as well as the people’s discontent, made of him a ruler capable of committing any crime in order to save his throne.
Torture has existed throughout history. Human beings, in degrading their condition, made others suffer in order to dominate, to subjugate and obtain information. Torture is almost always linked to the unjust exercise of power. We ought to know that even the official Church has engaged in torture. Only five hundred years ago, heretics were burned, non-conformists non-believers were horribly tortured, and all types of pressure were employed over the “enemies” of the Church. The theme of torture is “basic” to a Christian reflection. Its eradication, its rejection by any means is a Christian task, a matter of urgency and priority.
This text in the gospel that deals with the “scandal of the small people” has been often used to illustrate the theme of corruption of minors, child pornography and the like. In Biblical language the phrase “the small people” does not refer only to children. The small people are the poor, the disabled, the oppressed, the powerless who are crushed by people in power. For these little people, humans like the blood-thirsty king are a scandal, taken in the context of the origin of the word: stumbling block. That is to say, people like them are deterrents to poor people’s growth, development and life. That is why it would be better for them to be hurled into the sea with a millstone tied around their necks. Wheat flour and that of other cereals were obtained by going through a mill. The mill was an instrument composed of two pieces of stone, one turning over the other. Mills were basic in a home. They evolved into different shapes through the centuries. In Jesus’ time, the so-called “ass-mills” were utilized. The stones were so huge, only an ass (or a donkey) could turn the stone that was on top of one fixed on the ground. This was the kind of mill used by various families. Several of these very heavy stones were found among the archaelogical ruins of Capernaum. Seeing the size of this piece, one can imagine the tremendous impact of the phrase used by Jesus, one that is “exaggerated,” according to the typical, oriental manner of speaking, reflecting Jesus’ grave criticism of the exploiter of the poor.
(Mt 14:1-2; 18:6-9; Mk 6:14-16; 9:42-48; Lk 9:7-9; 13:31-33; 17:1-3)