The child who terrified a king

Epiphany – 2017

Matthew 2:1-12

Marian Free

In the name of God, whose Son proclaims a kingdom that threatens to shake and disturb the world as it is so that it might become the world as it is meant to be. Amen.

In July 2016 a massive 41,000 people were arrested in Turkey – 41,000. These included police officers, members of the armed forces and public service as well as a number of members of the judiciary. Their crime? – suspected involvement in the failed coup against President Recep Erdogan. The response to the attempted coup was swift. Any real or imagined opposition was quickly silenced and any future unrest deterred by the speedy and thorough suppression of real or potential opponents. Those who were arrested face anywhere from fifteen years to life in prison, though who knows how or when the legal system will manage such a huge number of trials.

The situation is Turkey is far from unique. The so-called Arab Spring has come at a huge cost to many and in most cases there is little to show for a movement that began with so much hope and idealism. In Egypt for example, a change in government has not really achieved the dreams of those who risked their lives for a better state of affairs. Unrest in Syria five long years ago was brutally suppressed and the reaction of the government then has led to the nightmare that is Syria today. In nations that are divided by race or class, or in nations where power is maintained by force rather than popular choice, any dissension that threatens the relative stability of the nation and is often rapidly and effectively crushed. Such action has the effect of exposing the insecurity and the paranoia of the leaders and making others think twice before they take similar action.

Gaining and maintaining power by force and by the suppression or destruction of any opposition are not new phenomena. In our own tradition, the Book of Kings recounts the story of Jehu, a commander of Ahab’s army, who not only deposed his king but who also slaughtered all seventy of Ahab’s sons to ensure that there were no legitimate claimants to the throne and no one to challenge his power. Rule that is not popular or legitimate lays itself open to resentment and opposition and is forced to use violence to maintain control.

“When King Herod heard this he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him”, so writes Matthew in today’s gospel. Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, was a tetrarch appointed by the Emperor. His father had made some good political choices and as a result was given the title of King and responsibility for Judea but you only have to see the fortress at Masada to understand that Herod the Great did not feel at all secure in his role. He needed to bolster his power by force and to protect himself from any who might seek to take his throne. His son, Herod Antipas was even less secure. He was utterly dependent on Rome for his position and was resented by the Jews because he was not one of them.

It is no surprise then that Herod and all Jerusalem trembled when the magi enquired: “where is the child who has been born King of the Jews”? Herod was the King of the Jews. A competing (and perhaps legitimate) King would deepen the resentment towards Herod and had the potential to lead to an uprising against him. A King of the Jews would be able to gather support not only from those who longed to liberate the land from Roman rule, but also from pious Jews who were hoping that one day God would provide an heir to King David to rule over them.

Herod had every reason to fear and he did what many before and since have done – he sought to destroy the child who posed a threat to his grasp on power.

The story of the magi, coming as it does on the heels of Christmas brings us up with a shock. It is hard to hold on to sentimental images of mother and child, of peace and joy when we are confronted by the harsh political reality of this birth. In order to hold on to his power and position Herod has to destroy Jesus – an innocent child who, we might think, is no threat at all. Jesus is God’s son, sent by God for the salvation of all. This infant is not a political or military threat. There is no political party or group of agitators who have been holding out for a figurehead to consolidate their followers or to lead their cause. Besides, any discontent is easily crushed by the superior might of Rome.

Jesus is only a child, a child who, we are led to believe, will show the people how to reconnect with God. He will challenge them to turn from their sin so that they are ready to enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew’s telling of the story undermines this irenic idea and confronts us with the bald truth of the situation. However innocent the child, however noble Jesus’ purpose, it is clear that he has come to initiate change and to question the status quo. He has come to announce an alternative rule, an alternative kingdom – the kingdom of heaven. It is of no consequence to Herod that this is a spiritual rather than a political kingdom or that Jesus wants to turn the hearts of the people to God rather than turn them against Herod. Any change, any person that draws power and attention from Herod could be considered dangerous and threatening. Any person that implicitly or otherwise challenges loyalty to himself or to the Empire could be perceived to be a danger to Herod’s tenuous hold on power. Potential for trouble must be nipped in the bud before it is allowed to get out of control. Herod cannot risk the people seeing in Jesus an alternative to his role or using the infant to form a movement against him. Herod has no option but to seek to destroy his competition.

Here at the very start of Jesus’ life Matthew makes it quite clear that Jesus is a threat to the status quo and that as a result his life is at risk. As the story continues, we will witness Jesus’ supporting and encouraging those who are alienated and disenfranchised. At the same time we will see him offending and putting off-side those in positions of power.

Herod was mistaken in one sense. Jesus did not come to seize political power, nor did he come to liberate Israel from the grip of Rome. He did come, in the words of Psalm 72: “to deliver the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.  To have pity on the weak and the needy, and to save the lives of the needy. To redeem their lives from oppression and violence.” (12-14) In any time and place this is a subversive mission, one that implies that the state of the world and its institutions are not as God would wish it to be.

Matthew is right to warn us. This is no innocent baby, but a child who will shake up and challenge the world’s institutions, who will bring to light things that some would like to remain hidden and who will expose violence, injustice and oppression.

Herod was right to be terrified. If we are not willing to change and grow, if we are not prepared to get on board with Jesus’ social and political agenda, perhaps we should be terrified too.



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