By Pamela Lewis
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him, 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘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.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 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.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Though often seen as a cartoonish figure rather than as a flesh-and-blood human being, King Herod (or Herod the Great) is a documented historical ruler of Judea. The father of the Herodian family, Herod is remembered for sponsoring a large variety of building projects, and for reconstructing the temple in Jerusalem. But he was also a ruthless destroyer of people, including at least one of his ten wives, Mariamne, and several of his children. His title, King of the Jews, was bestowed by Rome, but was never accepted by the Jewish people.
Reference to Herod is found only in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels (and Luke’s is extremely scant), but in today’s verses a clear sense of Herod as a ruler and as a man comes through in the former gospel writer’s account.
Whereas the Magi are overjoyed at the news that the king of the Jews has been born, Herod is inwardly disturbed over this information, but lies that he is also interested in worshiping the newborn child. He was not the rightful heir to the throne of David, as prophesied by Micah (5:2), and was therefore hated and considered a usurper by the Jews. If Jesus was the true king, his supporters would overthrow Herod. He did not want the Jews, a religious people, to rally around a religious figure; and if the Magi were themselves Jews, they would welcome a Jewish king to move power away from Rome to Parthia, the most powerful region next to Rome. Herod also knew that the Jews were expecting, according to prophecy, the imminent advent of the Messiah, who they hoped would be a great military leader.
King Herod is the embodiment of the fearful despot, whose only interest is in keeping a tight grip on power, and will take the life of anyone — even that of a child — who stands in his way. He had no interest in worshiping or giving his life over to Jesus, the true king who wants us to give our lives to him.
Pamela A. Lewis taught French for 30 years before retirement. A lifelong resident of Queens, New York, she attends Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue and serves on various lay ministries. She writes for The Episcopal New Yorker, Episcopal Journal, and The Living Church.
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