The danger of story, especially those from the Bible which become so familiar, is that our minds and hearts tend to reduce them over time. When you hear something over and over, you tend to reduce the narrative and compartmentalize it, often with the effect of neatly categorizing the settings and characters into flattened images that do not convey the complexity of the human beings as they really were. It’s easy for us to reduce people into the categories of either being a hero or villain. When we do that, we can then divorce ourselves from identifying with the elements of the story and refuse to acknowledge parts of our own character – especially the parts we don’t want to own. After all, who wants to be like King Herod – a despotic, ruthless person who would do anything including kill to protect himself? Surely none of us are like that, are we?
Herod the Great was born in 73 BCE and died in 4 BCE. He was the son of an Idumean father and an Arab mother – he was decidedly not Jewish. Through a series of intrigues involving Julius Caesar, Marc Antony & Cleopatra, and Octavian he became a puppet king of the Judean district encompassing most of modern Israel, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. While Herod was powerful in some ways, he was also very vulnerable. He had a number of enemies including most of the Jewish religious establishment who rejected him even though he married the daughter of the former high priest John Hyrcanus. He lived in the precarious world of Roman politics where choosing sides in conflicts could cause you to wind up dead overnight. In many respects, Herod was a man who lived in fear which drove him to do whatever it took to protect himself – including ordering the death of his father-in-law John Hyrcanus, his wife Mariamme I (daughter of John Hyrcanus) and two of his sons. So when Magi arrive and inquire about a new king, Matthew tells us that Herod was terrified and all Jerusalem with him. In the absence of information, fear sets in and sets the stage for an explosion of rage.
This rival born in Bethlehem who would later claim his kingdom is not of this world challenges Herod and Rome itself – and it is still a challenge to us when we are tempted to protect ourselves at all costs. While we may not personally commit mass murder, there are times when our anger and rage born of fear or confusion can combine with that of others in mass violence. Just before the holidays arrived, our government released more detailed information about the torture and atrocities committed by our own troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report was damning and shed light on far more than waterboarding done in the name of truth, justice and the American way. Because of our fear of terrorism, our government and military carried out terrible atrocities against the Iraqi and Afghani people. We want to think we are not like Herod … but this evidence says we are not so different after all.
And it even comes more close to us than that. Although I have been away on vacation, I could not escape the horrible news of the death of Baltimore cyclist Tom Palermo and our own bishop suffragan being the driver of the vehicle that killed him. This news is devastating on so many levels and has stirred many emotions within me from grief, to confusion, to anger. There is a temptation with such strong emotions to rush to some kind of resolution. Often this resolution is born of fear and anxiety and leads us to jump to conclusions based on assumption which is what many have done on social media. The explosion of anger, name calling and figurative demands for our bishop’s blood by those who claimed to be Episcopalians sickened me. All of them justified their vitriol by saying they were “morally outraged” and “demanding justice.” In the absence of information rage exploded and was rationalized and justified … not so unlike Herod after all.
Christ’s birth challenges our own tendencies to want to play judge and jury, to lash out when we hurt or are fearful. He told us to pray for our enemies and even went on to pray for those who turned their violence on him. His example stands as a warning to us when we feel justified in lashing out in the name of moral outrage or demands for justice. The line between moral outrage and self-righteous pontificating is very thin indeed. We are called as people marked by baptism to seek and serve Christ in all persons and love our neighbors as ourselves – even when we don’t want to.
Yes, this sweet little Jesus boy is not so easy to take, is he? He’s still a threat to our egos, our desire to control, and especially to our desire to exercise superiority over others. This Jesus is dangerous even to us. But the danger comes with the hope of transformation for us too. We do not have to remain like Herod – fearful and prone to lashing out. Jesus invites us to be so much more. His death and resurrection provide the pattern for our own – and not just the final physical death, but for all the deaths we will endure in this life … especially the death of our false selves … our egos. Jesus meets us in our fears yet isn’t satisfied to leave us there with them. While the birth of the Prince of Peace did not eradicate sin, and this story reminds us of that truth, he did come so that the power of sin would never get the final word – not for us and not for the children of Bethlehem … or Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan. Thanks be to God.