Religious zeal makes some people, perhaps most of us profoundly uncomfortable. It smacks of fanaticism and we know where that can lead … violence, intolerance and the violation of human rights. The readings from the Apostle and the Gospel deal with two very different kinds of zeal. In the gospel we have the zeal of Herod … which was a zeal not for God but for Herod himself … his own political survival as he saw it. He unleashed the terror of the Slaughter of the Innocents, killing all the baby boys under two in Bethlehem because he saw the advent of the Messiah as a threat to his own privileged position under Roman rule. In consequence the Holy Family have to escape to Egypt, there to stay a while until after Herod’s death. Even then they have to avoid Herod’s son Archelaus, choosing to live in the northern backwater of Nazareth for greater safety.
In the Apostle from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians we see a man in transition from persecuting, violent religious zeal before his conversion on the Damascus road to a very different kind of zeal after that. He goes into Arabia, which he later in the same letter identifies as the site of Mt. Sinai (4:25) for up to 3 years, including his return to Damascus. He does not go immediately to Jerusalem. Like the Prophet Elijah of old, when his work is challenged by events he retires to the desert to listen to God. The “still small voice” speaks again. God tells him that he is to suffer much for the sake of the Gentile Mission. The crucified and risen Messiah turns St. Paul away from persecuting zeal for ever. The same energy is now redirected toward love and salvation and away from judgement and persecution.
The zeal of Herod was of course simply the blind furious zeal of the tyrant and his instinct for self aggrandisement and survival. The zeal of Saul was just as bloody but it was at least for a higher if misunderstood motive - the purity of Israel’s faith and the exclusive loyalty due to the jealous God. Such religious zeal was based on an exact fulfilment of the Torah, the Divine Law of Moses. At first the Christian Jewish Messianic sect seemed to Saul to be the most dangerous threat to that loyalty every Jew must have toward God in adherence to the Law. His retirement to Mt. Sinai after his conversion was, therefore, entirely to be expected. BUT, he came out of this desert like the Prophet Elijah before him and St. Anthony the Great after him an utterly changed man, touched by God.
Here then is the point about zeal. It is not wrong in itself if directed aright. St. Paul was not the first apostle to have made the journey away from false zeal to true zeal. St. Simon the Zealot actually belonged to a sect that formally upheld, quite violently, the principles of zealotry, before his following of Christ. After meeting Christ he channelled all his energies into preaching the gospel of God’s love … most believe to the people of North West Africa, the Near East and maybe even Persia. Some even believe that he was martyred on a trip to Britain, Caistor in Lincolnshire precisely. Be that as it may, St. Simon and St. Paul both exhibit life changing transformations as their zeal was remoulded by the Holy Spirit into a godly rather than an ungodly form. This is where we come in.
Orthodox Christianity is opposed to all forms of religious triumphalism and fundamentalism. If this is your zeal, no matter how piously expressed, then please repent. The glory of the Church is in her saints; ordinary folk like you and me, open to the Holy Spirit, who through asceticism and a deeply warm faith will without wavering sacrifice their own lives for others … never killing, never humiliating, never judging, never violating human souls, even when encountering something profoundly wrong or wicked. Evil is to be dealt with by the secular authorities. We offer only salvation and a release from the grip of Satan into the glorious LIBERTY of the children of God. Such zeal is holy, necessary, noble, God pleasing. This Saul learned when he became Paul. This we should learn daily.