Preached on January 1st, 2017 at University United Methodist Church. You can listen to an audio recording here which might give you an idea of how often I go off-script. The scripture reading was Matthew 2:1–18.
It is a period of civil war. A small force, led by general Gaius Julius Caesar, has crossed the Rubicon river, committing treason against the ruling consul, Pompey Magnus. Caesar rides a wave of populist support against the elites centered around Pompey; and has thus rent the Roman Republic in twain.
You may remember Pompey from when he put down Sparticus’ slave revolt; or his campaigns in Syria and Judea. In the latter, he successfully conquered Jerusalem, finally turning Judea fully into a client kingdom of Rome.1 And over Judea, he placed a man as ruler, but only as a figurehead. The real power in Judea was held by a man named Antipater.
In the midst of Caesar’s coup, shrewd Antipater is there, supporting Caesar. And in return for his monetary and military support, Caesar gives him governorship over Judea, and Antipater promptly installs his sons as governors of Jerusalem and Galilee. But soon after winning control of the Republic, Caesar is assassinated on the floor of the Senate, and Antipater switches sides, aligning himself with the assassins—who win the ensuing civil war.2
But Antipater is not well-liked, because of his steadfast support for the Roman occupiers, and he is poisoned. His son Herod takes the opportunity to go to Rome, where he pleads his case with Caesar Augustus. He argues that he has been loyal to Rome, and has partaken in several military campaigns for the Republic; not to mention being an excellent tax collector in his time being governor of Galilee.
Augustus, with a vote of Roman Senate, gives Herod command over Judea, and the title: King of the Jews.3
This story—which I have simplified dramatically4—comes to us from the historian Josephus. He was a first-century historian who focused on Judea, and spends a bit of time on Herod’s life and reign. The very same Herod that we find in our scripture reading today.
It is easy, I think, to gloss over him when we read the Bible; we focus instead on the Magi of the East, who have come seeking the Christ, or on Jesus, born in Bethlehem. These are happy things to talk about, and we humans like talking about happy things, especially in a festive season. But I want to take a closer look at Herod: to understand who he was, and what lessons still ring true centuries later.
Josephus tells us that Herod was a builder, and spends quite some time describing all of the things that Herod—or at least, the workers Herod may or may not have been paying—built. For example, Herod took the decrepit naval fort of Straton’s Tower and had it rebuilt, renaming it Caesarea in honor of the Emperor who gave him a kingship. There were storerooms, markets, baths, and even temples to Caesar Augustus himself; Herod hosted games and performances there, and Josephus credits him with thinking of giving rewards not just to the first place winners, but also to second and third.5
He also started rebuilding the Temple at Jerusalem, to make it bigger and better than it ever had been before, as “an everlasting memorial of him”.6 This was the Second Temple, and Josephus writes at length about its construction and renovation—though only its Western Wall now remains.7 But from what Josephus and other ancient sources tell us, it was great.
To pay for all of this—and to keep Rome happy—Herod had to collect taxes.8 This took the form of customs duties, census taxes, land taxes, sales taxes, and the Torah-mandated Temple Tax.9 Despite all the great buildings and cities that were being put up, a lot of citizens were not exactly happy. I suppose it’s difficult to appreciate gilded palace rooms when you’re starving.
But there’s one more thing about Herod that Josephus tells us: that the “affairs of [his] family were in more and more disorder”.10 He had ten wives, and children with most of them, and there was more plotting and scheming among them than in an episode of Game of Thrones. One of Herod’s wives may have been scheming against him, so he had her executed. Her two sons avowed to avenge her death, and jostled with their siblings for inheritance of their father’s kingdom. One of those siblings accused them of treason, and after some forged letters and confessions obtained under torture, there was enough for Herod to have both of them executed, to preserve his reign.11
That very same sibling’s own machinations were soon revealed to Herod, and Herod ordered the third execution of one of his sons.
Herod, King of the Jews, was willing to do anything—oppress workers, starve his citizens, even murder his own children—to maintain his power.
And after thirty-odd years of reigning in Judea, Herod is spending some time in his terrific palace, doing the things kings do, when a herald comes up to him. “Sir, there’s a caravan that just arrived from the east, and they’re requesting an audience with you.”
King Herod says to send them in, because they’re probably there to pay tribute to him, and everyone should pay tribute to him. He hasn’t finished having gold inlaid in his summer home in Galilee, after all.
After a little while, a group of men in strange robes come. Their chosen spokesman steps forward. “We are priests of Zarathustra—you may have heard of our astrology.”
“I have,” Herod says. “Why have you come?”
The priest continues, “We have been watching the stars for some time, and what we have seen has told us that the King of the Jews has been born recently. We were wanting to pay him homage.”
And Herod, who has had the title for nearly forty years, frowns just a little and says, “What are you talking about? I am King of the Jews.”
It’s a threat to his power, to his reign. It’s the only thing it could be. If these astrologers are right, and a new King of the Jews has been born—one that isn’t related to Herod—then it means that he and his descendants are going to be overthrown.
This cannot happen. So Herod consults with his scribes and priests. They scour their scrolls of scripture, trying to understand what may be going on—why a group of strange men would show up asking after a baby with Herod’s emperor-granted title. Trying to understand who would overthrow the very nice dynasty they have going on here, thank you very much.
They find their answer in the Book of Micah.12 And so they tell Herod that they think it’s possible that these astrologers may just be looking for a baby in Bethlehem. Herod relays this to the priests of Zarathustra, and tells them to go investigate, then come back and let him know what they find.
They thank him for his hospitality, and leave.
The distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is only about six to eight miles, by modern measurements. An online travel forum I found claimed you could walk it in just an hour or two.13 A priestly train two thousand years ago might have taken a little longer—but a couple of days at most.14
So a week after the astrologers leave, they still haven’t come back, and King Herod is starting to get worried. “Where are they?” he demands to know. The fastest runners are dispatched, and within a day, Herod has his answer: they left for home without coming back to report to him.
“Then kill all of them.” Herod commands. “Kill all of the baby boys in Bethlehem.” If he can’t learn the exact child from the astrologers, they he will eliminate every possible threat to his rule.
For this is what worldly power does when it is threatened: it uses violence. It uses decrees of Holocausts, “internment” camps, and massacres. Herod is no different; and many scholars have pointed out the similarity of Herod’s command to that given by the Pharaoh way back in Exodus.15
This event, here in Matthew, has since been given the term “Massacre of the Innocents”, and has inspired a feast day in the Catholic church, to remember the innocent slaughtered to preserve political power.
And as for Herod, within a couple of years of ordering the massacre of the baby boys of Bethlehem, he dies, wracked with pain and suffering to his last breath.
After Herod’s death, his son Archelaus was made ruler of Judea. But he was considered so incompetent that Caesar Augustus had him banished, and instead, a man named Quirinius was made governor of Judea and Syria.
I want to take a moment now and compare and contrast the two men in Matthew 2 who both have the title “King of the Jews”.
First, I want to talk about our historical sources on these two men. Much of what we know about Herod comes from secular sources, and those secular sources gush at length about all of the “great” things he did. It is secular historians who have given Herod the epithet “the Great”.
Our sacred source, the Bible, is not so kind; and because of the cultural prominence of scripture, Herod is probably more known for the Massacre of the Innocents than any of the things he had built during his reign.
Whereas Jesus gets very little mention in secular sources; after all, what does a rabbi born to a lower-class family have to do with the grand military campaigns and buildings that real rulers build?
I don’t think I need to tell you how much Jesus is talked about in scripture.
It does, however, lead me to my next comparison: to their births. Herod was born into power. His father, Antipater, had been a shrewd politician, providing Herod with a life of privilege from birth. He would be educated by the best tutors, and taught how to himself be a shrewd politician.
Jesus, on the other hand, was born in a manger. His worldly father, Joseph, was a tekton, the Biblical equivalent to a blue-collar worker. His education would be the same sort of education all of the poor children received, and he would probably be expected to follow in the career footsteps of Joseph, and become a tekton himself.
The difference is stark, and provides insight into what God really values. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not worldly power.
The final comparison I want to make between these two men is their methods for achieving their goals.
Herod, time and time again, uses violence and the power of his station to achieve his goals. He oppresses his workers, forcing them to build monuments to a man who blasphemes and deems himself a god on Earth. He engages in military campaigns, and executes his political rivals16—even his own children. There appears to be nothing he won’t do to maintain his grip on power.
Jesus, on the other hand, talks to people. He gives impassioned speeches, such as his Sermon on the Mount. He cites scripture when arguing why he can heal on a Sabbath. He quiets a storm by simply ordering it to be still. He says things like “Blessed are the peacemakers”17 and “All who take the sword will perish by the sword”.18
Even when threatened with death, Jesus gives himself up to the authorities, and merely talks with Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilate is in the position over Judea that his predecessor Quirinius was—which means that he is well aware that there was, in fact, an emporer-appointed King of the Jews some thirty years prior. So when Pilate questions Jesus, asking him if he is the King of the Jews, it is likely asking at the very thing Herod was scared of: was this Jesus going to overthrow the “stable” government they have?
What Pilate and Herod did not understand was that the Kingdom of Jesus does not work like the worldly kingdoms they were familiar with. It is something that we today still struggle with regularly, for it does not operate by the same rules and conventions that worldly powers and principalities do. We see the world as Herod does, enacting violence against those who threaten our domains.
This behavior—massacring those who would threaten our political power—has been going on for thousands of years. It has not ended with the latest massacre of innocents, nor was Herod’s ordered massacre of innocents the first.
And massacres are only one portion of the violence people wield to obtain or maintain political power.
As I look back through history, I see a continuing cycle of people in positions of power saying: “This time, military force is justified. This time, we will enact peace through violence. This time, it will be the last massacre. This time. This time. This time!” And it may quell the rebellions for just a while, but then they come, the children of those murdered returning to exact vengeance. And if they win, inevitibly they will claim to have obtianed peace, only for other children to rise up and fight them.
On and on and on and on it goes. When you explore the causes of political violence today, there is a common refrain: “We are attacking them because they attacked us first!” And so you go to the other side and say “Well, why did you attack them first?”, and they say, “We didn’t; they attacked us before that!” And on and on and on and on.
Like siblings trapped in a never-ending game of “no, he started it!”, we fight and slaughter and oppress and kill over and over and over again. We are so obsessed with each other’s death that death is all we can see. But it does not matter—really—who started it; it only matters who is suffering.19
And that—that is the point of Christmas. That is why God came to us in the body of a child, to show us how to simply stop. How to stop this cycle of violence, how to stop the massacres and the genocides. How to bring about the kingdom where our children are not sacrificed at the whim of a tyrant gripping to power, but where our children put their hands in the dens of snakes, and are not harmed. For Christ came to Earth to save us from the death we are so obsessed with.
But, we sinful, fallible humans have refused to listen. And so we read of Herod’s order to indiscriminately massacre children, fearing their ability to overthrow his dynasty; and we remember our history classes, or the evening news, where we learn that yet another ruler, clinging to power, has ordered the indiscriminate massacre of potential rebels. On and on and on the cycle of power-grabbing and political violence continues.
Maybe, someday, we can just stop.
We have, in this scripture, two men, both with the title “King of the Jews”. One of them gives us the legacy of a massacre, part of a continual cycle of death.
The other came to show us how to live.
And we—who like the priests from the East, seek the King of the Jews—have a choice which legacy to live up to. May we be wise in our choosing.
Overall, while a number of people who heard the sermon complimented me on it, I’m ultimately not that satisfied. I feel like it could have been tied together a little bit better. That I also was preparing it over the Christmas weekend and all of the events that occur around Christmas plays into that; I didn’t spend quite as much time with it as I’d hoped. Some of it is also just that things sounded better in my head, and expressing them in words is hard. But, I’ve learned something, so I’ll work at it more next time.
http://www.livius.org/ja-jn/jewish_wars/jwar01.htm and http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-14.html#S4.5 ↩
Very, very simplified, because this is preached as a sermon. Were I writing it originally as an article, I would not have done so. Please check the references for the full story. ↩