Keeping Herod in Christmas
Matthew 1:18 – 2:15
. . . the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’
Right in the middle of Matthew’s version of the Christmas story comes a shock. It is disturbing, terrifying and horrific. And it is essential to understanding the adventure and mission of Jesus.
King Herod, or Herod the Great, ruled over Judea in the years leading up to Jesus’ birth. Although he rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem – a sign of his Jewish identity – he was a puppet king who also depended on the Roman Empire for his status. He was, like many biblical characters – and like many of us, too – a man with an identity crisis. Cruel and ruthless, he used slave labour for his huge building projects. He had a reputation for assassinating anyone he considered a threat – including his wife and two of his own sons. Late in his reign, he began hearing rumours... rumours that the longawaited liberator prophesied by Isaiah and others had been born. While a pious man might have greeted this news with hope and joy, Herod only saw it as a threat – a threat to political stability and to his own status as king.
In recent years, there had been a lot of resistance, unrest and revolt in Jerusalem, so Rome wasn’t in a tolerant frame of mind. Any talk of rebellion, Herod knew, would bring crushing retaliation against the city. So Herod enquired of the religious scholars to find out if the holy texts gave any indication of where this long-anticipated child would be born. Their answer came from the book of Micah: Bethlehem.
Herod did what any desperate, ruthless dictator would do. First, he tried to enlist some foreign mystics, known to us as ‘the wise men from the East’. He wanted them to be his spies to help him discover the child’s identity and whereabouts so he could have the child killed. But the wise men were warned of his deceit in a dream and so avoided becoming his unwitting accomplices. Realising that his ‘Plan A’ had failed, Herod launched ‘Plan B’. He sent his henchmen to find and kill any young boy living in the area of Bethlehem. But the particular boy he sought had already been removed from Bethlehem and taken elsewhere.
The result? A slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem. As is the case with many biblical stories, some scholars doubt this mass slaughter occurred, since none is recorded in other histories of the time. Others argue that Bethlehem was a small town, so the total number of casualties may have been twenty or thirty. Dictators certainly have their ways of keeping atrocities secret – just as they have their ways of making their exploits known. Whatever the infant death count in Bethlehem, we know Herod killed some of his own children when they became a threat to his agenda. So even if the story has been fictionalised to some degree, there is a deeper truth that has much to say to us today.
In his slaughter of innocent children, King Herod has now emulated the horrible behaviour of Pharaoh centuries before, in the days of Moses. A descendant of the slaves has behaved like the ancient slave-master. The story of Herod tells us once again that the world can’t be simply divided between the good guys – us – and the bad guys – them – because like Herod, members of us will behave no differently from them, given the power and provocation. So all people face the same profound questions: How will we manage power? How will we deal with violence?
Herod – and Pharaoh before him – model one way: violence is simply one tool, used in varying degrees, to gain or maintain power. The baby whom Herod seeks to kill will model another way. His tool will be service, not violence. And his goal will not be gaining and maintaining power, but using his power to heal and empower others. He will reveal a vision of God that is reflected more in the vulnerability of children than in the violence of men, more in the caring of mothers than in the cruelty of kings.
All this can sound quite abstract and theoretical unless we go one step deeper. The next war – whoever wages it – will most likely resemble every war in the past. It will be planned by powerful older men in their comfortable offices, and it will be fought on the ground by people the age of their children and grandchildren. Most of the casualties will probably be between eighteen and twenty-two years old – in some places, much younger. So the old, sad music of the ancient story of Herod and the slaughter of the children will be replayed again. And again, the tears of mothers will fall.
The sacrifice of children for the well-being and security of adults has a long history among human beings. For example, in the ancient Middle East there was a religion dedicated to an idol named Molech. Faithful adherents would sacrifice infants to Molech every year, a horrible display of twisted religiosity to appease their god’s wrath and earn his favour. In contrast, beginning with the story of Abraham and Isaac, we gradually discover that the true God doesn’t require appeasement at all. In fact, God exemplifies true, loving, mature parenthood . . . self-giving for the sake of one’s children, not sacrificing children for one’s own selfish interests.
This is why it matters so much for us to grapple with what we believe about God. Does God promote or demand violence? Does God favour the sacrifice of children for the well-being of adults? Is God best reflected in the image of powerful old men who send the young and vulnerable to die on their behalf? Or is God best seen in the image of a helpless baby, identifying with the victims, sharing their vulnerability, full of fragile but limitless promise?
We do not live in an ideal world. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to face at every turn the destructive reality of violence. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to side with vulnerable children in defiance of the adults who see them as expendable. To walk the road with Jesus is to withhold consent and co-operation from the powerful, and to invest it instead with the vulnerable. It is to refuse to bow to all the Herods and all their ruthless regimes – and to reserve our loyalty for a better King and a better Kingdom.
Jesus has truly come, but each year during the Advent season we acknowledge that the dream for which he gave his all has not yet fully come true. As long as elites plot violence, as long as children pay the price and as long as mothers weep, we cannot be satisfied.
So let us light a candle for the children who suffer in our world because of greedy, power-hungry and insecure elites. And let us light a candle for grieving mothers who weep for lost sons and daughters, throughout history and today. And let us light a candle for all people everywhere to hear their weeping.
In this Advent season, we dare to believe that God feels their pain and comes near to bring comfort.
If we believe that is true, then of course we must join God and come near, too. That is why we must keep Herod and the ugliness of his mass murder in the beautiful Christmas story.
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time when you were a child and an adult other than a parent showed you great respect or kindness.
3. How do you respond to Matthew’s decision to include this story that none of the other Gospels recount?
4. For children: If you could ask grown-ups to do one thing to help children, what would it be?
5. Activate: This week, try to look at personal and political situations from the vantage point of how they will affect children and their mothers.
6. Meditate: Light a candle, and hold in your mind both the image of Herod, ruthless and powerhungry, and the image of Jesus, a vulnerable baby. Observe what happens in your heart and express a prayer in response.