Herods

Carla J. Bailey

Scriptures Matthew 2:1–12, 13–21

I have been wanting to hang onto Christmas this year. I’d like to keep our tree up and lit for many more weeks—perhaps as long as it will take for our amaryllis to bloom. I’ve wanted to hang on to the quieter days between Christmas and the New Year, spend more time with the characters of the stories of Jesus’ birth. I want to keep the candles lit and the star still glowing and the January deep freeze at bay. Alas, time does not stand still. So now we are on to Epiphany—the 12 days after Christmas when, Matthew tells us, the Magi arrived in Bethlehem. But today is actually 14 days after Christmas, so, if we are to follow the story’s chronology, the Magi have come and gone and are on their way home by another way, bypassing the evil Herod. Joseph the dreamer has been warned to gather up his little family and escape into Egypt. It’s an odd end to the Christmas miracle, but, in that it’s about getting back to work and on to challenging responsibilities while being aware and wary of dangerous political threats, I suppose this 14th day after Christmas is as much a part of the whole story of Jesus as his birth—maybe even more so.

In my former church in New Hampshire, on Christmas Eve the children perform the Nativity story, mixing up Matthew and Luke’s versions, interspersing the familiar words with contemporary observations and carols. One would imagine that the most coveted role in the drama would be that of Mary, and, to be sure, a lucky girl gets to play her part every year. But actually, it’s Herod the children all clamor to play, largely because of how we taught them to play the part. It’s something of a cross between Snidely Whiplash and Simon Legree. Herod has the best line in the entire show, delivered with the most evil sneer ever summoned on the face of a child: “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” The Magi would have to have been total doofuses to have missed Herod’s wicked intent. There was something about playing the bad guy in the Christmas story that is just irresistible to the children.

The Bible, like the world that it describes and foretells, is filled with horrible tales of violence against innocents. According to the story of the Exodus in the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s great and most important desire for the Israelites who were slaves was freedom. And so the story tells us of one plague after another descending on the Egyptians, until the final plague that was the most horrific—the Passover. Moses told the Hebrew families to paint the lintels of their doors with the blood of a lamb. Then, the tenth plague descended—the killing of every first-born child in Egypt, except where there was lamb’s blood over the door. In those households, the children were spared. It’s a heartbreaking story from which Matthew, centuries later, drew inspiration for his story of the slaughter of the innocents, when Herod’s rage at having been tricked by the Wise Men and his fear that this new King of the Jews would supplant him on the throne made him kill all the children under the age of 2, so that he could be sure to destroy the one child who could and would end his reign of terror.

It will help you understand this and all of Matthew’s stories about Jesus to remember that Matthew was writing his gospel especially to and for the Jews who were wary over how many non-Jews were coming into this new Jewish-Christian faith. Matthew’s version is dated sometime between the years 80 and 90—which means 80 to 90 years after Jesus’ birth. Matthew was not an eyewitness. When he wrote down his stories about Jesus, Jerusalem had been destroyed in the first Jewish-Roman war. The holy Temple was gone, and Jews were being hunted, arrested and many executed, especially those who were loyal to Jesus and not to Rome. One of Matthew’s agendas therefore was to reassure Jews that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, that Jewish Christians were not giving up the faith of their ancestors, but rather fulfilling the faith of their ancestors. Over and over, Matthew linked the stories of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death and presence after death to the stories of the Old Testament. He quoted prophets and Psalms, and he reminded his readers of the stories of the Jews’ experience in slavery, in the wilderness, in freedom, in glory and in exile, in restoration and in the long wait for the Messiah. He included and embellished stories about Jesus to reinforce that Jesus was the one for whom Israel hoped. One such story is this one of the slaughter of the innocents, of which there is no historical account anywhere—no evidence that such a terrible thing ever actually happened. Matthew was not so much interested in historical fact as he was in political repercussions and theological truth. When unjust and cruel power is threatened, innocents die.

This past week in our Deacons meeting, I had asked each Deacon to reflect on one character or scene or dimension of the Christmas story that they found especially meaningful or even just interesting. I wish I could take the time to tell you this morning what each of them said, so rich and wonderful were their observations. I am going to tell you one. It was this: that in all the stories with which we are so familiar—Mary being told she was pregnant, her visit to Elizabeth and Zechariah, how she and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem for a census, the angels and shepherds, the star, the wise scholars from the east, Herod—it is as if political, governmental powers and decisions were being made at some distant, removed level but that the repercussions of those decisions and actions were played out in the lives of people who had little or no power over them. The characters of the story were like pawns in some cosmic, political puppet show. That is as astute an interpretation of the Jesus narrative as ever there was. And it was exactly to those powerless, manipulated prisoners of someone else’s political vagaries the adult Jesus directed his teaching, his preaching, his living example of what it means to belong to God and not to human temporary masters, bosses, slave-owners, demagogues, politicians, chief priests, powers or principalities.

The Herod family tree is large and complicated, and the Christian gospels mention one Herod or another here and there in ways that don’t always coincide with historical accuracy. But there are important reasons why the name Herod—as the embodiment of an unmerited ruler of the Jews—pops up in the narrative. The first Herod, the original, lived and reigned well before the birth of Christ. He was Herod Antipater. He had 10 wives and, as you might imagine, a lot of children, one of whom was Herod the Great who became governor of Galilee. Herod the Great had five wives, the fourth of whom bore the Herods who appear in the Gospels—Herod Archelaus and Herod Antipas. The Herods were not Jewish by birth—rather, they were the children of converts to Judaism. That fact alone made them suspect, but it was their roles in trying to frustrate, detract, even kill the Jesus movement that give them their prominence in the Gospel stories. There is the story of one of the Herods beheading John the Baptist ostensibly because that Herod’s wife hated what John said about her adulterous relationship with her so-called husband. There’s the story of Jesus being warned that Herod wanted to kill him, to which Jesus replied, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’” There’s the story of how Herod became friends with Pilate after all the hullabaloo about Jesus the revolutionary’s arrest and crucifixion. And there’s today’s story about how Herod was so desperate to stay in power that he ordered the slaughter of boy babies under the age of 2 in order to kill the one child who could actually undermine him—not by replacing him on the throne, but by ignoring him, resisting him and living according to his own definition of power and authority that had nothing to do with violence and control and everything to do with love, and compassion and giving power to the powerless.

When we became parents, any of us who have become parents, from the first moment of the arrival of the new little person in our lives, every cell, every fiber of our being is marshaled to protect their lives from danger. It is inconceivable to us that such an arbitrary threat as the one Herod presented could ever occur. Yet, parents everywhere experience threats equally arbitrary and frightening. Just look at the faces of the refugee parents from Syria. It is the worst kind of anguish, the acceptance that they are powerless to protect their children from harm. The anxiety that accompanies our protection of children communicates itself to our conscious selves in a hundred ways—the recollection of things our parents did and said that come rushing back to us, the common sense that we hope we have developed in sufficient measure, a kind of street-smarts, if you will, the visceral instinct reminiscent of mother bears. Anxieties communicate themselves vividly in dreams—dreams for their future, dreams of the dangers that threaten them, dreams that are real and dreams that represent deeper emotions.

When my children were very young, I repeatedly experienced one of those dreams, a nightmare really, night after night, a dream that was vivid in its depiction of a terrible threat to my children. It was not a situation I ever encountered in real life but I am sure that dream caused hyper-vigilance from me during those many months it recurred. Was there a real threat to the well-being of my children during that time in their lives? Or was my dream a sign of my own anxieties about their safety? I don’t know, but I do know that for many months, I watched them in ways even more vigilant than I had before those dreams occurred. I have not had that particular dream now for many years. Does that mean my children are safer now? Or just that the dangers to their lives are different than when they were 2 and 4 years old? I still wonder from time-to-time if perhaps there was an increased threat to their lives during those years, and that terrible dream helped me protect them in ways I didn’t realize.

Evil is a mysterious thing: mysterious and terrible and inevitable. And worst of all, it erupts when you aren’t looking. Here we are, just two short weeks after singing the sweet lullabies of Christmas Eve, pondering the evil threat to the baby Jesus’ life that confronted him and his family almost immediately after his birth. In the blink of an eye, the lives of innocents may be lost to powers that exceed our ability to protect them or escape with them to a safer place. Parents all over the world, and even here, are feeling that vulnerability. Where can I take my children to be sure they are safe? Into what country do we need to go? Dreams of safety are universally desired, in other lands and in ours, in other times and in ours, in other families and in ours. We all want to know of imminent dangers because we all want to protect those who are vulnerable, innocent and unable to protect themselves.

But since dreams, like social media, are not always 100 percent reliable, let me close by suggesting two concrete ways we might protect the innocents in our lives, even when we don’t know of the exact threats to their lives.

One is to develop and rely upon communities of strong support and vigilance. In a very real sense, it is what a community of faith creates in its life together, and it is why one pastoral goal of our congregation is to develop and offer opportunities for every member of our congregation to get to know, by name, the children of our church. We make promises to the families of children we baptize—that we, too, will watch out for their well-being, sound the alarm when the threat is imminent, offer a place of safety to the degree we are able. And we will also offer reassurance when the threat is only imagined and not real, when paranoia threatens to cloud our judgment. A community of faith can and should weave a protective shield over and around its children that fulfills those promises made to parents at the baptism of their children: We are also watching over them; you are not alone.

The second is to continue to confront the systems and powers and principalities that threaten the lives of innocents. This is harder, of course, because it requires us to summon courage and a voice of reason, sanity and trust that there is always another option, another choice, another way to reach greater goals than to hit, sting, shoot, isolate, abandon, starve or slaughter every child under the age of 2. Those things, while momentarily empowering, do not work for very long, and they serve to create new Herods in every generation. If you believe in God, you know that they are wrong. They are just plain wrong. Therefore, they must be resisted. They must be confronted. Our imaginations must be employed here. The threats to human life do not look like Herod’s soldiers wandering around murdering babies. They look like No Child Left Behind and rescinding the Affordable Care Act and conscription and poverty and illiteracy and a hundred other things that don’t appear to be imminently deadly. Those of us who are wary of the world’s assurances have to look beneath the cool exteriors of promises. We have to be suspicious. And we have to be very, very vigilant.

There are Herods everywhere and in every time. They are the embodiments of the opposite of Jesus, which is why I look to Jesus, the stories about him, the teachings from him and the powers arrayed against him to choose where and how I am a resistor today. I won’t follow Herod anywhere. I’ll follow Jesus everywhere. May our discipleship of love and peace, of dignity and resistance protect us from the dangers Herods pose so that the tender hope of our Messiah might grow and flourish. Amen.