Jim Harnish

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”).

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,