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,








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14 thoughts on “Living in Herod’s World

  1. Bernard Lieving January 6, 2018 — 1:36 pm

    Jim, You are so “on it” with today’s message. I wish it could be read by every person in this country. Bernie

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Thanks! My first draft had a far too specific and blistering paragraph about the President, but I felt led to raise the issue and let folks sort it out for themselves. How long can this “strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage” go on?

    1. That’s powerful, straight talk, Jim. Thank you. By the way I’m retired UM clergy from Indiana. My wife, LeeAnne, and I have been worshiping at Hyde Park each spring during our two week fun in the sun break. Your leadership and spirit are still felt and still at work in that incredible congregation!

      Herb and LeeAnne Buwalda

  3. January 6, 2018 — 2:10 pm

    WellJim, you did it again. This should be in the NYTimea. Send it to them! I’m passing this on widely. Blessings to you and Marsha, Carmen

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. Stephen Bauman2 January 6, 2018 — 2:19 pm

    yes indeed… that’ll preach…



  5. Good morning, Jim – One of the things I do routinely — so routinely that it’s not only for special events or purchasing ‘big ticket’ items — is ask myself the following: when I have my entrance interview at the pearly gate what will I have to say. I’m not worried about things I did wrong, either by mistake or being young, naive, etc.Those things aren’t excuses; they’re just what was a product of what I knew and who I was at the time. But now it’s a different story. I make choices with much more experience, knowledge of the trade offs of choices, and understanding of the implications of those choices. But the good thing about that is that there are fewer “hard” choices — not none, but much fewer. It’s very comforting for ‘doing the right thing’ to be nothing special. I’m writing this while I’m out doing errands, so hope it’s not completely incoherent! Lisa

    Sent from my iPhone


  6. Good one! MB

    Sent from my iPhone

  7. Thanks as always, Jim, for your insights, truths, and courage. The pulpit misses your regular words, so keep writing and being a prophet. Oh, and how about a solution!

    1. Thanks! The only solution I see depends on what happens next November…unless the “really stable genius” implodes before then.

  8. Lucretia Murphy January 6, 2018 — 7:00 pm

    This is so painfully right on. Am I doing enough for King Jesus in this time of Herod?


  9. Great post showing the parallels of the two world times. Painting & carving enhance the words—Thanks

  10. Andrea Batchelor January 7, 2018 — 11:43 pm

    Grateful for your wisdom, Jim. I just sent this to Dick and the boys.
    Happy New Year to you and Martha!

  11. October 29, 2018 — 4:45 pm

    Sent from my iPhone

    Begin forwarded message:

    > From: Bill J > Date: October 29, 2018 at 12:22:25 PM EDT > To: > Subject: Re: BIRTHDAY OF THE DAY: Nelson Cunningham, president and co-founder of McLarty Associates > > Thanks Carmen. > Bill Jordan > >>

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