Author Note: A Sermon delivered to Orange City United Methodist Church (Orange City, FL) on January 2, 2022.
When I was a child, our church did the same Christmas play, every year. It was basically the standard amalgamation of the Gospel stories—it combined the Shepherds from Luke with the Magi from Matthew, with interspersed carols for congregational participation. It culminated in a nativity with angels and sheep and wise guys and Mary and everyone in the play gathered around a manger that somehow held together every year even though it lost half a plank in splinters to anyone who grazed their hand against it. Photo ops are important for the parents at this time of year, so the finale of the play was carefully constructed to provide the best one for the most parents. However, there was one character that was missing from the ending nativity, and looking back I recognize the brilliance of whoever wrote that play to include a scene of Herod’s meeting with the Magi.
This week we’re celebrating Epiphany, which technically occurs on Thursday, at the end of the 12 days of Christmas. As a liturgical commemoration, we focus on the Magi who stand as representatives of the Gentiles who come to worship the Christ. As a biblical passage, Herod is just as important to the text as the Magi. In fact, Herod is a foil to the Magi, each serving to contrast their reactions and responses to the newborn Christ King. To skip over Herod, then, is to misrepresent the Gospel.
Because, although Gospel means Good news, Herod’s side of the story definitely suggests it’s the opposite for him. Herod makes himself to be an enemy of Jesus, but certainly that’s because he perceives Jesus to be his enemy. And it isn’t just Herod acting on his own, but there’s a coordinated response from the capital city of Jerusalem. The Magi’s question puts the whole city on edge, and they unite to determine where this new king was to be born. Whether the rest of the Jewish population supports Herod’s desire to remove the threat is unclear—Matthew seems to lump them together with Herod, yet it is hard to believe that the average Jew would want to eliminate the Messiah. Perhaps Herod’s secrecy and deception suggest he is moving without the support of his population.
Although Matthew’s portrayal of Herod is something of a caricature, we do have a considerable amount of historical information about Herod. With the help of Rome, he defeated the last of the Hasmonean kings of Judea to become king of the Jews. The Hasmoneans were descendants of the Maccabees, the group that defeated the Greek Empire to briefly gain independence for Israel and the events during which the Hanukkah miracle happened. In contrast to his predecessors, Herod was not ethnically Jewish, but his family would have converted to the religion some generations before. These things would have made him less popular with his subjects than the Hasmoneans before him. A shrewd politician, Herod married a descendant of the Hasmoneans, to try to legitimize his claim to the throne and gain some favor from those he ruled.
In practice, Herod had the difficult job of ruling the Jewish population under Roman authority. Caesar had been made into a god, which would cause conflict with the Jews who recognized only one God. He also did not ignore the non-Jewish population which lived within his kingdom. For example, not only did he expand the Temple in Jerusalem, he also built others, including one dedicated to Augustus. Building a temple to another god would not have been well supported in Judea.
Herod was a tyrant. He had multiple members of his own family executed. He suppressed the protests and the resentment of his people. His taxation system, which he used to fund his massive building projects, likely impoverished his people. In all, he was an unpopular and powerful ruler.
The writer of Matthew contrasts the Magi with Herod. In actuality, we have very little historical information about who the Magi were—even if they were given names through history. Matthew simply identifies them as Magi from the East. They were likely astrologers or dream interpreters, officials from another court. Their jobs might have been something like Daniel’s, recognized as uniquely gifted in many ways and advisors to their king. We do know they observed the sky since they saw the star in the East, and that they were wealthy, from the lavish gifts they bestowed upon Jesus. It’s also safe to say they were probably from far away, since it takes them two years to discover Jesus—they were awfully late to Christmas, and that they did not have meaningful access to the Jewish scriptures since the chief priests and scribes’ interpretation is what leads them to Bethlehem.
Notice how different they are from Herod. Herod won’t leave his throne to search for Jesus himself, but the Magi continue their own long journey to discover Jesus. Herod works secretly, deceptively, but the Magi cause the commotion in Jerusalem. Herod’s activity is under the table, while the Magi reach out for help. Their joy at meeting Jesus is genuine, and they prostrate themselves at Jesus’ feet—contrasted by Herod’s fury at being eluded. They don’t seem to understand that Jesus is the Messiah, only that he is the new king of the Jews; Herod knows Jesus is the Messiah, yet still seeks his execution. The Magi take a long trip to see Jesus, but Herod sends Jesus on a long trip.
It would be easy to simply dismiss Herod as a bad guy, and as Matthew portrays him, he certainly is. But I think if you could talk to Herod, he wouldn’t see himself as a bad guy. Herod would probably tell you how hard he worked and how much he sacrificed to get to where he was. He ran a successful war campaign; he banished his first wife and son in order to marry the Hasmonean. He cut down threats to his reign. He successfully navigated sticky political situations—like backing Marc Antony who would eventually lose to Augustus, then managing to convince Augustus that he would be loyal to him. Herod may have benefitted from his father’s good relationship with Julius Caesar, some might call that privilege, but he still had to put in a lot of work to end up where he was. In all, Herod was a man of limitless ambition, driven to achieve. In fact, Herod has many qualities we value in our society today.
But I think it’s his ambition that causes him to go astray. His desire to gain and protect his power enslaves him to the power itself. It becomes the center of his life, that from which he derives his meaning. Herod would rather worship himself, or his kingship, than Jesus. Although he adhered to many aspects of Judaism, Yahweh was not his God. In other words, he followed the religion without letting it “get to him”, although he probably would not have said so himself. The idol of his own power prevented him from seeing his own lack of faith. Then again, when you already have everything, who needs to depend on God?
Beyond simply causing a lack of faith, his god of power also leads him to perpetrate grave injustice over others. Because Herod must protect his own power, he must eliminate the threat of another king, because he is eluded by the Magi, he slaughters infants. The idolatry of Herod feeds back into injustice against others. Furthermore, once his orders have been carried out, after which he would presume the new king is dead, his power is resecured, and his worship of his power can continue, with new vigor. In this way, his injustice in defense of his idol then feeds back into his idol worship.
For Herod, this is a negative feedback loop: his idolatry causes his injustice and his injustice supports his idolatry. These two often work together in this way. Their opposites: love of God and love of others, or worship and compassion, form a positive feedback loop. But if idolatry and injustice resonate with each other, how would we—I mean Herod—escape from the negative feedback loop and join the positive one?
Herod has a choice in this experience. In his decision, he chooses to never meet the new king. Instead, he remains on his throne and sends others to carry out his dirty work. For the Magi, the defining moment of Epiphany is entering into the presence of the Christ child. Herod never does–Herod never allows himself to meet Christ.
It is the same for us, now. Although we don’t have to go anywhere to meet Christ, since after the coming of the Holy Spirit, God’s presence is available to everyone, everywhere, at all times. We can choose to meet the King whenever we desire, and the ways we can go about meeting the King are myriad. We might find ourselves in the presence of God in prayer and meditation, through journaling or music, or serving our brothers and sisters at a soup kitchen. However, entering the presence of Jesus, just like it was for the Magi, is no accident on our part. We might perform any of the above without seeking Jesus. That is, we too can choose to ignore God, and sustain or defend our idols.
It is God’s presence that releases us from the bondage of injustice and idolatry, and frees us into compassion and worship. This is what it means to be a new creation.
So may our idols not blind us to our own lack of faith. May our self-justified injustice not blind us to our lack of love. May we be the bearers of hope. May we avail ourselves to God’s presence in more ways, at more times, and may we be true worshippers of Christ in thought, word, and deed.
Photo: “The three Magi before Herod, France,” early 15th century. Stained glass: colored glass, grisaille; lead. Restored by F. Pivet, 1999. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Magi_Herod_MNMA_Cl23532.jpg