In the Time of King Herod Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
I love the PBS show Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. If you aren’t familiar with this program, each episode features two or three celebrities who want to research their family’s geneology—an increasingly popular trend. With a seemingly limitless budget and team of researchers, Gates uncovers surprising stories about their ancestors. For example, he discovered that Sarah Jessica Parker is a descendant of a woman killed during the Salem Witch Trials. Ben Affleck’s family was involved in the slave trade in South Carolina. This show, along with the popularity of websites like Ancestry.com and genetic testing services like 23 and Me, underscore how much people hunger for stories about their heritage in order to better understand themselves.
But this is not really a new trend. Though it’s never included in the lectionary, Matthew’s Gospel begins with what he calls “an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah.” Matthew doesn’t mention the shepherds and angels from Luke’s Christmas story, but instead catalogues a lengthy list of who begat whom, starting with Abraham and coming down through the centuries to the birth of the Messiah “in the time of King Herod.”
While not much else is written about Jesus’ ancestry by his biographers, Roman historian Josephus functions like a first century Henry Louis Gates Jr. regarding the life of King Herod–compiling two entire scrolls of details about him! For starters, Josephus records that Herod was born to privilege, the son of a nobleman with Arab heritage who was also an observant Jew. The family received Roman citizenship from none other than Julius Caesar.
Herod was appointed governor of Galilee, and later elevated by his lifelong friend Marc Antony to be tetrarch of Galilee. In the year 37 BCE, at the ripe old age of 36, the Roman Senate appointed Herod King of Judea, a position he held for 32 years. Clearly a puppet of the Roman Empire, he ruled the Jewish people as Rome desired, so it was to Rome’s advantage that he maintain authority.
Herod’s title Herod the Great is partially deserved, for he used his status and wealth to build port cities, aqueducts, theatres, fortresses—including the one at Masada—and rebuilding the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (the one Jesus disciples marvel about). Diplomatically, everything Herod touched turned to gold. No wonder the Romans loved him and the Jews feared him.
As he aged, however, Herod became increasingly cruel and paranoid. He killed his favorite wife (he had 10 of them), along her mother and grandfather. He went on to kill three of his own sons, several uncles, and an assortment of cousins, all of whom he suspected of treason. Nearing his own death, Herod plotted to have hundreds of Jewish leaders rounded up in the Hippodrome he’d built by Jericho and executed. Why? Because he was afraid that the public would not mourn his death, so he wanted to create a reason for the Jewish people to mourn.
Jospehus records all of this and much more about Herod’s horrendous reign of terror. What he doesn’t record is anything about Herod’s executing infants in Bethlehem. In fact, other than the Gospel of Matthew, there is no record of this slaughter ever happening. Of course, modern historians often point out that the “absence of evidence is not the same thing as the evidence of absence.” It may be that Josephus had not heard about massacre, or perhaps had not thought the execution of several dozen babies in a tiny rural town like Bethlehem was notable. It would have been just one more tragedy in a long line of them, and wholly consistent with the disarray into which Herod had fallen.
But in our Scriptures we do indeed have this terrible story, and Matthew enters into it by noting it took place “in the time of King Herod.” Whether or not hundreds of babies or a dozen were killed by the paranoid ruler, it is a horrific tale of what fear and power can do. Whether Matthew’s account of Jesus’ plight is factual or a sign of his longing to create resonance with the ancient Jewish story about the killing of Egyptian babies that prompted the Exodus, it is here in our Bible. And here it bears witness to the fact that in every era on every continent, people have endured something akin to “the time of King Herod.”
Children who represent a threat to governing authorities are usually considered dispensable by those entities. It’s why Herod lashed out against his heirs, and it’s why the atrocity of cages and separations are happening at our nation’s southern border today. A fear similar to that which engulfed Herod results in our time in bodies washing ashore along the coasts of many nations to which refugees flee. It is why Sarah Jessica Parker’s New England ancestor, who posed a threat to the Puritan religious powers of her time, was executed as a witch. It’s fear and control that convinced Ben Affleck’s family and hundreds of others to treat the African people they kidnapped as sub-human. It’s the same need to kept control that made them rationalize the buying and selling of black bodies as an economic necessity. These calamities and all the other stories like them in each of our own family trees remind us that Christmas always comes “in the time of King Herod.”
All around us creation groans from years of misuse. Ask the trees or the mountains or the waters to describe the time in which they live. Ask bombed out cities and clear cut rain forests and homeless veterans and Australian wildlife what time it is. They will all answer, in one way or another, “in the time of King Herod.”
And, as always, it is into just such a time that God comes. When the world is full of fear and violence, God enters into the story. And the arrival of God’s grace in a place of oppression and unyielding empire sets off such reverberations that they are felt across the planet by people who are simply studying the stars. It is into desolation and grief that God comes. Not as a mighty ruler like all the King Herods who have ever reigned in this world. Not slashing indiscriminently with a sword, but reaching out his chubby baby hands to pull a father’s beard or knead a mother’s breast.
Jesus is not at all the King the wise ones crossed the dessert to find. And yet, this is exactly who God sent. It is these exact people with whom God chose to be. It’s clear from the Bible that God’s work is always done in unexpected ways by an unlikely cast of characters. God has always invited just about anyone to participate in bearing the Good News of God’s love to the world—in the first Christmas story that included a young woman, a stepfather, night-shift workers, and foreign scientists. As Jesus grew up, his crowd included fishermen, sex workers, and sell-outs to the occupation.
And here we are, a motley crew in the time of King Herod, 2020, with our own set of terrors and injustices threatening to engulf us. We might ask, “Where is God in all of this?” And what is God’s response? To come among us once more at Christmastime. To be beside us not as a mighty king, but quietly feeding us with God’s own self, surrounding us with promises and companions, lifting us up with hope and a mission. God washes us clean, calls us beloved, and entrusts us with meaningful work to do. We may indeed be living in the time of King Herod, but we are also living in the time of Jesus Christ, who is and who was and who is to come. Thanks be to God!
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