Living in Herod’s World

A Story We Wish Wasn’t There 

It’s Epiphany, the day when those mysterious magi parade onto the gospel stage. (Matthew 2:1-12) Unfortunately, Matthew can’t tell their story without telling a story we’d like to avoid.  (Matthew 2:16-18) Leon Cognate captured the horror in Scène du massacre des Innocents  (“Scene of the Massacre of the Innocents”).cogniet

Who Was Herod?

Herod was “both a consummate politician and clumsy and ineffective, adroit in his use of power and blindly cruel.” (The Anchor Bible Dictionary [ABD], Vol. 3, p. 169)

Herod personified “a world of power [and] conspicuous consumption…His skilled brokering of power, his shrewd acquisition of immense wealth, his use of Greek theater to shape people’s thinking and values, his architectural splendor giving everyone a sense that their king was all-powerful and majestic.” (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, p. 198, 201, 203)

Herod was the builder of extravagant palaces, fortresses, theaters, temples, culminating in the Herodium, the manmade mountain where he was buried. (ABD, p. 168-171)

It was normal behavior for Herod to lie, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” (Matthew 2:8)

His authoritarian rule provided security, prosperity and political power for the cozy cadre of religious leaders and political sycophants who fed his ego and obeyed his orders.

Personally, Herod was a pathologically insecure narcissist who was obsessively driven by his fear of any threat to his position and power. (ABD, p. 161) He demanded loyalty from the people around him (ABD, p.164) and exiled or executed anyone who questioned his authority.

That’s why he was “troubled” when the magi came looking for a newborn king.  The more troubled he was the more troubling he became, resulting in the slaughter in Bethlehem.

I’m sure there were good people who found a way to justify his policies or ignore his bad behavior.  I remember hearing Holocaust historian Franklin Littell recount a conversation with a German church leader who, as Hitler was rising to power, assured him, “Adolf Hitler is God’s man for Germany!”

Herod’s World and Ours  

Does that description of Herod sound familiar? You probably noticed some striking similarities between Herod’s world and our world, epitomized by our President and those who are enabling him.

And then there is Bethlehem. The “voice heard in Ramah, weeping and much grieving” could be the voices of refugee mothers whose children aren’t allowed into our country, unemployed fathers whose children will not have health care without CHIP, expectant parents in Puerto Rico who have no functioning hospital delivery room and families who will be torn apart without DACA.

But our world, like Herod’s world, is the world into which Jesus is born; the world he came to save.

Holy Refugees 

Joseph hardly needed an angel to tell him to get out of there! (Mathew 2:13) I found this carving in a wood shop behind St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Durban, South Africa.



The carver makes his living by carving religious figures from discarded lumber and broken tree trunks. It portrays the reality of refugee families who, like Mary and Joseph, flee from violence and oppression.

Why Herod? 

Why does Matthew give Herod a leading role in the gospel drama?

Matthew was a hard core realist. The former tax collector knew about financial corruption and political power. He  drew a stark contrast between the kingdoms of this world ruled by the likes of Herod and Pilate vs the Kingdom of God reveled in Jesus. His gospel shows us how to live that Kingdom life right now.  Jesus’ followers are called to hold every political leader and system accountable to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God, praying that it would become a reality now, among us, even as it is already the reality of Heaven.

The tension in Matthew’s gospel is captured in Jesus’ words, “You cannot serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24)  Matthew forces the choice upon us: Herod’s way or Jesus’ way? The kingdom of this world’s corrupted politics and self-serving power or the Kingdom of God revealed in Christ?

Matthew offers a word of hope when he records, After King Herod died…” (Matthew 2:19) Like every autocratic ruler, Herod “struts and frets his hour upon the stage /And then is heard no more.”  (Macbeth, Act V)  After Herod does his worst he becomes little more than a calendar page to establish Jesus’ birthday.  And when Herod was gone, Jesus came back. (Matthew 2:19-23)  

When my first book, a study of Mathew’s gospel titled What Will You Do With King Jesus?, was published in 1986, I could not have imagined the parallels to our world in 2018. Now, perhaps more than ever before in our lifetimes, it’s the question Matthew challenges us to answer.

Grace and peace,









Ring Out the Old…Ring in the New

Beginnings and Endings 

Becca Stevens is the most inspiring person I met in 2017. She is an Episcopal priest, an author and the founder of Thistle Farms, a life-transforming ministry of recovery and social enterprise for women who have survived prostitution, trafficking, and addiction.  12923288_10156784985305611_4888667385524284798_n-e1479161015679The women of Thistle Farms are living proof that “Love Heals.”

Becca was the writer for last week’s devotions in The Upper Room Disciplines. She wrote:

Every beginning in our lives has an ending. Each ending marks a new beginning. Always we begin anew with confidence that we will not be alone.  We live in faith that God meets us in all our futures.  Wherever life leads us God is with us. 

Her hopeful words reminded me of an old poem to which I often return at the beginning of the year.

Ring Out, Wild Bells!

One of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s greatest works grew out of his most painful loss, the death of his best friend and his sister’s fiancé, Arthur Henry Hallam, at age 22.  Tennyson worked on In Memoriam A.H.H for 17 years, which suggests that the way from grief to hope is not a sprint but a marathon.  He marked his poetic journey with the passing of three Christmas celebrations.

Midway through the poem, there’s an abrupt change in rhythm and spirit.  Tradition says it was written after Tennyson awoke to the ringing of the bells in Waltham Abbey.  His words have an amazingly contemporary ring as we enter 2018.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

For Your Spiritual Growth 

Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent are just around the corner (February 14).  This my invitation for you to use Easter Earthquake as a part of your spiritual discipline.

41HPb-i2sIL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_It’s a daily guide to scripture, reflection and prayer which centers our Lenten journey in the resurrection.  You can also participate in an online study that a includes my video commentary and other resources at Upper Room eLearning.

My prayer is that the Spirit will use this study to energize people with the hope of new life in the resurrection.

Happy New Year!