From the Book of Acts:
Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they came to him in a body; and after winning over Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for a reconciliation, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. The people kept shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!” And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Acts 12:20-23 (BCP Version) – July 17, 2013.)
Occasionally when studying Scripture I have thought, “This can’t possibly have happened.” I’m sure that what I am reading is meant to be an allegory or a metaphor, or that it is simply pious legend that the biblical author has incorporated into his story. This strange little story of the death of Herod Agrippa I was one of those passages. It’s just a little weird.
It turns out, however, that this story is verified by an extrabiblical source. The Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus recounts almost the same series of events. In Josephus’s telling, Herod wears a robe of silver rather than purple, but the meaning is the same: royal pride. In addition, Josephus adds the details that Herod sees an owl perch overhead during the daytime, a negative omen, and that Herod suffered severe and disabling abdominal pain for five days before dying, suggesting that the “worms” may have been intestinal parasites.
Where Josephus and the author of Acts (Luke) most agree is with regard to royal pride. Not only do they both portray Herod in that splendid purple or silver robe, Josephus parallels Luke saying, “Presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good) that he was a god . . . . Upon this the king neither rebuked them nor rejected their impious flattery.” (Antiquities 19.8.2)
I don’t know whether Herod’s parasites, suffering, and death were, in fact, a divine punishment for pride; they may simply have been the result of his prideful behavior. Sometimes out of vanity, we humans can do things that are not good for our health. I’ve been guilty of that myself. Indeed, even during the past few days.
We are undertaking a remodeling project at my parish, expanding the parish hall and rebuilding the street-side entrance of one wing of our building. It is work necessitated by the deterioration of the foundation of a 1960s addition to the church building. That deterioration has been most evident inside a basement storage area we affectionately refer to as “the mushroom farm.” Dark, damp, dank, and smelly, this large closet has suffered most from seepage of ground water through the concrete and cinder block of the foundation. It has been, for a long time, a place of mold and mildew.
Another place where these have grown is in the plenum between the cinder block exterior walls and the interior drywall affixed to them through use of 1″ x 3″ wooden furring strips. Over the years, as water has leaked through the walls, the wood has been stained, has rotted, and has been a medium for growth of mold.
As the workers demolishing these structures in preparation for our new construction have done their work, they have kicked up mold-laden concrete and wood dust. Each day during their labors, I have been walked through the site several times taking photographs of their progress. I want to document the need for and the progress of this renovation. This may be, I will admit, a matter of vanity or pride that I do so.
It’s also rather stupid of me!
One of the earliest instructions that was deeply impressed upon me as a child was to instruct medical people that I am allergic to penicillin. Whenever I do, I am asked, “What happens when you take it?” I have to answer honestly, “I don’t know. I’ve just always been told that I am allergic to it.” Being allergic to penicillin might, you would imagine, suggest to one that there might be an issue of sensitivity to other molds . . . . But I grew up in the desert! Molds were not an issue!
Until I moved to the midwest . . . Twenty or so years ago when I moved to the Missouri River valley (in the Kansas City area) and the high humidity of northeastern Kansas, I discovered seasonal molds play havoc with my health. Then ten years ago I moved to northeastern Ohio – more of the same.
Knowing this, I should be staying completely away from the demolition of the mushroom farm and the moldy drywall furring, shouldn’t I? But I insist on documenting this project . . . so my allergy, like Herods “worms,” is having a field day.
A few years ago, the indie rock group Chaotica put out a tune called Mr. Vanity. Among its lyrics are these words:
Why must you hide
Way inside, Mr. Vanity?
Why do you try to deny
Your own humanity?
So who died? Made you king?
You’re not god of anything.
What are you? Just a man!
Who on Earth gave you
The master plan?
Get a life. Get a clue.
Someone here should humble you.
* * *
Feed your greed
And your pride…
Hope it eats you up inside.
Those lyrics could almost have been written based on the story of the death of King Herod Agrippa I! That story from Acts, which Josephus’s testimony shows to be an historic one, reads like an allegory. It certainly could be one. His pride (in the form of those worms, those intestinal parasites) ate him up inside! Mine is making me sneeze my fool head off!
Pride is destructive. The worms of pride do eat you up inside!
But . . . confession time . . . I plan to keep on visiting the work site and taking photographs. I will put up with the sneezing and coughing! Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.