In most churches, last Sunday was Epiphany Sunday. Matthew 2:1-12, the story of the magi, is the Gospel reading in the Lectionary for that Sunday and is understood as Matthew’s version of the birth of Jesus. In our minds as well as in Christmas pageants and Living Creche productions, we conflate the nativity stories of Luke and Matthew. However, Matthew’s “nativity” story is set much later than that of Luke—about two years later! There is no way to reconcile these two stories about Jesus’ birth as long as we understand them to be reporting actual history. These stories are not historical accounts of Jesus’ birth, but they both contain profound theological truths about the significance of that birth and how we can begin to appreciate what God in Christ means for us and the wider world.
For years, most people have gravitated toward Luke’s nativity story over that of Matthew. There are at least two reasons for this preference:
- Luke’s whole Gospel is more lyrical than the other three Gospels. His account of Jesus’ birth, even in the King James Version of the Bible, radiates with sublime beauty. We tend to prefer Luke the poet to Matthew the teacher.
- Luke’s account could be rated at most as PG (the mention of a virgin may give it such a rating, at least by some standards). But Luke’s version of Jesus lacks the tragedy, violence, and horror of Matthew’s account with its mention of a mad king murdering babies. This detail of Matthew’s version, which has a necessary lesson to teach us about the presence of truth in a world ruled by paranoid and ruthless rulers, is not made for innocent ears. None of us want our holiday and merry spirits burdened with a story about genocide. Notice that the New Testament lesson for Epiphany Sunday stops at verse 12 with the magi returning home after receiving a dream to use a different route from the one by which they came to this “newborn king.” The Epiphany story stops before the murdering of little babies so we can focus on the “light” the Christ child brings to the whole world, including the gentiles (e.g., the magi). But the rest of Matthew’s nativity story reminds us of how much that light is needed in a world of violence, greed, and insane arrogance. As the first chapter of the Gospel of John reminds us, this light shines in the darkness, and that darkness is real but not ultimate.
The truth of Matthew’s story of Jesus birth has much to teach us. In his version of the beginnings of Jesus (which centers around Herod the King, magi from afar, and a babe who would be king) a lesson can be learned regarding each character in this drama, but today we shall focus only on one character: Herod the King.
Herod’s official title was “King of the Jews,” a title given to him by the Roman Senate. Rome may have given him the title, but Herod had to win his kingdom through a ruthless war which devastated parts of Judea. Throughout his reign, Herod remained a puppet ruler who kept his throne only as long as he could please Caesar. Like many kings who sit on tenuous thrones, Herod ruled as a tyrant who became more paranoid with age. This suspicious king stopped at nothing to maintain his power and position. He executed his favorite wife Mariamne because she belonged to the family who ruled Judea before Herod became king. He murdered his brother-in-law who was the High Priest of the Jews. He even killed three of his sons which caused Caesar Augustus to quip that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son. (Augustus was making a pun. In Greek, the word for a boar is hus while the word for son is huios. Jews were not allowed to eat pork although Herod acted as a Jew only when he was around his Jewish subjects. He also ruled over many gentiles.) As Herod faced his death knowing that no one would mourn him, he gave orders that when he died, the leading citizens of the town of Jericho were to be killed so that there would be some grief at his passing. (His son Archelaus, who succeeded him as ethnarch of Judea and Samaria, at least had enough sense not to carry out that order.)
Part of Herod’s paranoia and fear of intrigue and assassination relates to his background. He had the title “King of the Jews,” but he was not a Jew. He was an Idumean from a family of Bedouins to the south of Judea who embraced the Jewish faith for political advantage. In the minds of the vast majority of the Jews, Herod had no legitimate right to be king. That was why, in the story of Matthew, he was so threatened by the birth of a Messiah from the house of David.
So, what could we possibly learn from a mad man like Herod? After all, we are so unlike him. A Hitler or a Stalin would be more his type but certainly not any of us. But are we really so different from Herod? Perhaps a better way of stating the question is this: Is our difference from Herod a difference in kind or a difference in degree? A qualitative difference or a quantitative difference? On the spectrum of good and evil, where would any of us find ourselves? I think these are very important questions because I suppose the Scriptures would say that there is a difference in degree—a quantitative difference. As Paul writes, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That’s where the self-righteous “holier than thou” crowd make their mistake. They assume that the difference between them and the terrible sinners of this world is one of kind and not of degree. And perhaps that’s where we at times are tempted to make our own mistake.
If nothing else, Herod can serve as an example of what we should not be. I guess I’m asking you to consider the possibility that in each of our family trees stalks some form of Herod the King. If we look closely and deeply enough, not only over generations but in our hearts and souls, is it possible that this man is not the stranger we have always considered him to be?
Herod was threatened by Jesus. In one sense, this threat was the result of his paranoia, but in another sense, this threat was very real. For you see, whenever Jesus comes on the scene, we are confronted by the claims of God—claims that often clash with our own plans and vested interests. The truth is, we are often threatened by Jesus, his presence, and his example precisely where Herod was threatened–perhaps not on the same scale (which is another way of saying “the same degree”), but in the same way.
- Herod was first threatened at the point of power. Power is the ability to make decisions and enforce those decisions. A king by definition has power, and we also have power (perhaps not as much as a king, but we do have power in family matters, in business, in our dealings with others, in our communities, at the ballot box, and even in the church). And Jesus comes to us with talk about another Kingdom before which all other kingdoms (those of the Herods of this world and those smaller ones over which we rule) must give way. Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and ITS justice.”
Herod was correct. There was not enough room in Palestine for two kings. One or the other must go. The choice is simple (or maybe not that simple!) in life: either we will seek first God’s Kingdom and way or we too, in obvious and less than obvious ways, will drive Jesus from our own private realms.
- Herod was also threatened at the point of status. A king, to be a king, must believe he is better and more valuable than other humans. This can be difficult to believe about oneself, especially when, like Herod with his desert Idumean ancestry, one knows what he is and what he is not. In fact, throughout civilization, the whole phenomenon of kingship is a master illusion with its systems of props with pomp and circumstance, religious justifications, and bigger and prettier-than-life images. It’s all a sheer illusion, but an illusion which must be believed if kingship is to survive and proper. And apparently most kings (and queens) believe they are better than the rest of humanity.
Of course, what we are talking about is pride/arrogance, and it doesn’t take a theologian to know that kings do not have a monopoly on pride. Parts of the Bible see such arrogance as the essence of sin. We too are tempted to think we are better than others—that we deserve more—that morally, culturally, and socially, we are a cut above others. This temptation can be seen in obvious, less obvious, and even subconscious ways. And then Jesus comes along and says that there is only One who is good and that One is God. Before Jesus all our illusions of status and achievement become, in the words of Paul, filthy rags.
With Jesus comes the Good News that we are no better or no worse in God’s eyes than any other. And with these words, we are put to the test. Do we accept this judgment of grace, or do we cling to the illusions of a status that has no claim to reality? To his dying day, Herod claimed to be king and to be better and more valuable than others. Time and eternity will tell for him and for us. Before this newborn king, we are called to surrender the artificial status we so covet and accept who God says we are: Sons and Daughters of the Most High who are loved, prized, and judged equally by a God whose eternal essence is compassionate love.
In summary, Herod recognized in Jesus a threat to his status quo. And if we are honest, we must admit that Jesus poses a serious threat to our own status quo. Once we meet Jesus, we can never be the same. Once we encounter this Word made flesh, we are confronted with decisions.
- Decisions about our power, which is our ability to enforce our decisions: By what principle will we be guided? Will we seek first the Kingdom of God? Will we decide and execute our power according to God’s will and way, or shall we continue to sit on our petty and self-destructive thrones?
- Also, decisions about ourselves: Will we live a lie about ourselves and others? Will we assume a stance of arrogance and superiority by which we and others will inevitably suffer? Or will we defer to a greater perspective of humanity of which we are only a part? Such a perspective will be balanced on the one hand by our acknowledgement of our own failings and need of underserved grace and on the other hand by a joyful recognition that we are all loved—each and every one of us (even the Herods of this world) —equally and unconditionally loved by this God Jesus called Abba. In other words, will we accept the joyful Good News of Christ the Lord?
Jesus has come. In fact, he continues to come over and over again in our lives. He invades our self-made kingdoms, and his presence requires immensely important decisions from each and every one of us: decisions about him, about others, and about ourselves.
Have you ever wondered what happened to the magi? Such a question has been the subject of legends and stories, all of which are pure fiction. But the question we may ask is this: what becomes of us as we leave the presence of the Living Christ in our worship? Can we dare continue to seek him in our world—in our sisters and brothers–in the faces and lives of those dearest to us—in the opportunities of love, service, and growth which present themselves each day—in the downtrodden and marginalized (Remember that Jesus started life as part of an impoverished and refugee family fleeing political oppression. That is another part of the nativity story we are prone to forget)? Week after week we meet the Son of God at this altar, and week after week we leave this Table to make our own journeys through life. May we seek and receive him in both places so that what will become of us may be worthy of his name.