Most Christians would not list King Herod among the good guys in the story of salvation. Though he was a great builder, and did rebuild the temple for the Jewish people, he also built many other temples to other gods in an attempt to pacify the people under his rule. At most, he gets a lukewarm response from the Jews. His slaughter of the innocents puts him squarely on the ‘bad guy’ side of the Christian Christmas story. Or does it? Is there anything we can learn from King Herod?
Herod functions in at least three ways in Matthew’s gospel. In many ways, he is the first one to realize the threat that Jesus is going to be in our world. In a story that so far has been about the unfolding of God’s plan through the 3 sets of 14 generations from Abraham to Jesus, we have seen only the tough personal choices that needed to be made one individual – Joseph – and how that might affect two families – his and Mary’s. Now we hear, that because of Herod “all of Jerusalem is troubled.” And though Herod misunderstood ‘how’ Jesus would be a threat – he saw it only to his power – he was accurate is realizing that Jesus would become a challenge to all the structures of the religious institutions of his day, as well as to the accepted images of God that people employed. “The temple doesn’t matter? The Sabbath is made for man? Is he crazy? Call the God who created the universe and led Israel out from Egypt with a mighty hand ‘Daddy’? Won’t God smote you for even suggesting that?” Herod reminds us, who perhaps have grown comfortable with the cuteness of the manger and the warmth of a guiding star, that this story is far from over, and much will be demanded of us who believe.
Herod, ironically, gets it right in the first part of his request to the magi: “Go and search diligently for the child…” Isn’t that the goal of all our prayer and worship – not to placate our consciences, but to introduce us to the living God, to help us wrestle with the truth that his incarnation brings, and to let that truth shape our response to the world. The church teaches a lot of things that are not very culturally popular in our world – about the sanctity of each life, about the dignity of marriage between a husband and wife, about the call to end the death penalty, about the preferential option for the poor – all based on the truth we have come to know in Jesus. In this Year of Faith, we are called to do just what Herod said, to study the catechism, to read scriptures, to ‘search diligently’ that we may know who Jesus is and what He calls us to.
The second part of that statement, “So that I, too, may go and do him homage” if it stands alone, outside of the evil intentions of Herod, holds two challenges for me and perhaps for us. First, it invites me to look at the truth of my intentions in my conversations. Though I usually don’t mean to be that deceptive about my motives in conversations, I know that many times the filter for my inner frustrations about someone else’s actions has everything to do with how it will affect me.
• A teacher did not handle a difficult situation perfectly, and I am angry at them because now I have to get involved.
• My house manager at the Newman Center forgot to take out the trash before they went home to study, so I have to go back in the house and empty trash and gather recyclables and though I say I am frustrated because I am doing their job, it’s really because now I have to be out in the cold (and rain) an extra 2 minutes.
• I’m retelling a story about an event that happened during the week, and I slant the details in a way that makes ME look better than I actually was.
It is so easy to point the finger elsewhere, when the change that needs to happen is right here.
Second, once more in that ironic statement, Herod invites me to offer true worship to our Lord. To give to him, like the Magi, all that is generous for my heart to give:
-extra money to a monthly beggar at the door who reminded me when I gave him my usual $ that the price of a bus pass went up.
-time spent really listening to those who need my love –turn off the TV, step away from the computer/desk and listen
-time spent here in worship – give Christ the full hour, without rushing off early…
Herod may never make the list of good guys in the bible. But I learned a lot from him this week. Perhaps we all can…