“King Herod’s Quid Pro Quo”

~ Matthew 2:1-23 ~

Some foreigners arrived from a country off to the East. They must have had some political connections as they seemed to be distinguished gentlemen. But they brought news the ruler did not like.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? (vs. 1-2)

They seemed to indicate there was a new claim to the throne. Indeed, an effort was underway to remove the ruler and install another king. King Herod wanted to dismiss the claims as “fake news” and a “hoax” – not because the intelligence was inaccurate, but simply because he didn’t like the news. You see, these Magi had done their research.

For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (vs. 2)

The arrival of these foreign gentlemen with news of an overthrow effort (a “coup,” he called it), shook Herod.

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened… (vs. 3)

Although he like to pretend the people loved him, even making up high poll numbers just to feel loved, he knew deep down the truth behind his constant lies. He liked to call himself “Herod the Great,” but realized that few outside the palace said that.

He sat on the throne only because of the interference of a foreign government. And he remained in power because he won the approval of a foreign dictator, Augustus. But Herod knew that Augustus could easily orchestrate Herod’s downfall through an assassination order or merely by withdrawing support and embarrassing Herod. So, news from a different foreign power in the East – one seemingly at odds with his own foreign benefactor – greatly troubled Herod.

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him… (vs. 3)

Although he couldn’t be sure if his staff were just telling him that “all Jerusalem” was frightened as well and that maybe they were secretly glad. People had been known to “fake” their adoration of the king.

“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” those “nasty” Magi had asked. “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” These were disturbing questions, because Herod had christened himself as “the chosen one.” Then come these “really, really bad” ones with information that another might actually be “the chosen one.” Maybe if he just called them demeaning nicknames he would undermine their credibility – Lyin’ Balthasar, Little Melchior, and Low-Energy Casper. But that might not do it, he feared. No, he had to take decisive action to stop these intruders and their “very fake news.”

Why was this happening? It just wasn’t fair, Herod insisted. He had built magnificent palaces and sporting arenas and temples all over the land. But his greatest triumph was the temple in Jerusalem and the adjoining palace for himself. Herod’s temple, it was called. And it had a “beautiful” wall. It would keep out of the holy area those “bad people,” the Gentiles. “Those people have problems,” he told anyone who would listen. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” But now he was wondering if he would have to add a moat to keep the people happy. And he had built such big “beautiful” buildings with gold features. Why couldn’t people realize only a great person could build big things? Sure, he had greatly enhanced his own wealth, profiting off his time in government. But couldn’t the people see that he was going to Make Israel great again? I mean, they finally had a temple now, a grand temple. Clearly that was better than the last guy, even it if meant moving toward a system with a more autocratic ruler.

After being disturbed by the news from those “dopey” Magi, Herod called together his exegetical advisory council. Perhaps these religious leaders could help him out. They always seemed to pacify a large swath of the people that otherwise would surely be dismissive of a man who had divorced his wife to remarry, abandoned his child, enjoyed decadent entertainment, ignored the religious traditions, and even profaned the holy Temple. So, he asked his religious advisors where this “witch hunt” originated.

They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” (vs. 5-6)

He found it hard to believe that a chosen one could come from that “sleepy” town. But his paranoia quickly kicked in. He sent the “corrupt” Magi on their way but first he said, “I’d like you to do a favor for me, though.”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” (vs. 7-8)

But it’s not a ‘quid pro quo’, he insisted.

His trusted court priests stayed with him. Not a single one joined the search for the Messiah, all choosing to stay in the royal palace with Herod. It pleased Herod that at least these religious leaders would remain faithful to him, and maybe some of them would even denounce those who opposed him as “demonic.”

So, feeling fairly certain that his clever ruse had been effective, he dismissed them to unwittingly carry out his plan. Little did he know what these foreigner’s visit to this new wanna-be king would entail.

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (vs. 9-11)

Herod soon realized, however, that his efforts to extort those “low ratings” Magi from the East had failed,

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (vs. 12)

So, Herod needed to take action himself. He was, after all, a man of action, unencumbered by traditional diplomatic norms. He believed anyone challenging him should be executed for treason. In his delusions he had even killed his favorite wife and some of his sons.

During nearly his whole reign, Herod faced trouble within his own family. As early as 29 B.C.E. he had killed his wife, Mariamne, out of jealousy. As the years went by, the whole matter was further complicated by the question of who would replace him on the throne. Like many people with a strong will to power, Herod could not face the idea of losing it. Three of Herod’s sons were put to death, and [Herod’s] brother escaped execution only by dying. (Encyclopedia of World Biography).

Ah, but Herod’s plans were further foiled. Unbeknownst to him a special messenger was subverting his authority, undermining his ‘obviously God-ordained rule’. Off in that no-account excuse for a town called Bethlehem, the people whose job it was to make sure Herod’s rival was being protected, i.e., the parental-units, were working out other plans, thanks to that special messenger.

Now after [the Magi] had left, an angel of God appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. (vs. 13-15)

Of course, Herod didn’t know this was happening. Evidently, his spies were not privy to these secret messages and the ‘rival’ got away. So, Herod, maybe figuring that “do nothing” baby was still residing in that “failing” town of Bethlehem, or maybe just out of spite for having his authority challenged, in his madness, he ordered the execution of all the baby boys in Bethlehem.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. (vs. 16)

He didn’t care if he had to permanently separate children from their parents. If committing war crimes is what it took to stay in power, he would do it. And his religious counsel stayed faithfully by his side, without a care for those Rachels weeping for their children.

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (vs. 18)

Even that, however, did not ease Herod’s paranoia or depression. It was not too long before he would die, still unloved.

A man he was of great barbarity towards all men equally; and a slave to his passion: but above the consideration of what was right. Yet was he favored by fortune as much as any man ever was. For from a private man he became a King. And though he were encompassed with ten thousand dangers, he got clear of them all; and continued his life till a very old age. But then, as to the affairs of his family, and children; in which indeed, according to his own opinion, he was also very fortunate, because he was able to conquer his enemies; yet in my opinion he was herein very unfortunate. (Antiquities of the Jews, Flavius Josephus)

And so it was, that the most powerful man in the realm was thwarted by a powerless new-born child. Yea, even Herod’s son, Archelaus, who was now ruling in Herod’s stead, could not stop this “little tiny child.”

…an angel of God suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth… (vs. 19-23)

And so it was that new King would return from his time as a refugee to offer a new moral ethic far different from that preached by powerful rulers and court preachers. And to those who eschewed the way of violence and power, but instead followed the ways of this new King of peace, love and justice, upon them shone the light of God.

Yet, even among those claiming to support this new King, were those who still adhered to the ways of the old Herod. Perhaps Herod was their true king, after all. Maybe someday they will learn that you cannot serve both Herod and God.

 

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