Why Herod Loves to Sing Jolly Songs — and We All Really Shouldn’t
Who is the child in the manger, sung and celebrated through the ages with moving songs that have stood the test of time? And what relevance may the baby have as we face the challenges of the 21st century — not least the challenge of climate change?
Following a potholed inroad into the first question, the opening pages of the New Testament present us with the newborn’s genealogy: a descendant of Ruth, a Moabite who did not have the blue blood of an Israelite; of Tamar, a woman lacking the best of reputations; of Rahab, a prostitute; of David, an adulterer and an assassin; of Solomon, a lover of wealth, power, and concubines.
With such colourful characters did Matthew decide to begin his gospel. The ancient hearers would have picked it up fast: This new king had no pristine royal blood. From the cradle to grave, Matthew testified that the newborn did not quite fulfil the whims and cravings of what most folk would have longed for.
Regardless, the evangelist made it clear from the get-go that this new king was certainly not what Herod the Great expected.
The 'Político' Conspires
When he first heard about the child, Herod was “frightened,” Matthew tells us — so much that he gathered his allied intelligentsias and put together an impromptu secret service to find out about the newly born ruler.
But, what has Herod afraid of? And wasn’t it true that ‘the one who does no evil, fears no evil’?
Back in the day, any good scripture-believing-Israelite knew that Herodian dynasties were not authentic ones. Instead, the common hope was that a true descendant of the line of David would come and replace false kings. Herod, they all knew, was an impostor; a puppet king who obeyed the powerful Romans; a self-boasting egomaniac who did not care for the people as Ezekiel and other prophets had predicted that a true shepherd would.
But there he was, confronted by a bizarre visit from wise men from the East asking for the king of the Jews.
The issue, from the start, was one of kingship; of who’s in charge. Herod, or Jesus? And the issue meant confrontation: a different king meant trouble — at least for some — and certainly for the so-called ‘Great’.
Herod knew all along that his days were counted. And, this time, he trembled in fear. A star had shone brightly; all too strongly to the point of attracting astral gurus from afar all too keen to visit the long-awaited newly-born.
True, the shepherds feasted in awe and the magi followed suit. But this was no sweet-child-of-mine-in the-manger kind-of-night. Not close. In the words of N.T. Wright, this was the night of the most dangerous baby; it was the outbreak of the Age when Emmanu’el the God-with-us would finally defeat all enemies and claim the throne of David.
C.S. Lewis said it well: even if he was good, Jesus was not safe. Birthed in filth, his everlasting kingdom of peace would come to earth and his redeeming reign of justice would have no end. The good news of Jesus was an in-your-face to Herod — and to Caesar. Even if the baby made the angels sing, he surely made the políticos tremble.
Trickeries in the Dark
So Herod worked in secret. Wanting, allegedly, to meet the child to worship him, deep inside he wanted him dead.
“Show me where he is that I may pay homage too” he said to the wise men, winsome and crafty as the serpent of old.
But the angel of the Lord introduced a virus to the vigilance system advising the pagan kings to do otherwise. They were filled with joy bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn child; but they left Herod empty-handed.
Like any other tyrant, Herod couldn’t bear the trick the outsiders played on him. The impostor was aroused by rage and filled with jealousy. The God of the lowly, after all, spoke in dreams to those who fear him — even if such dreams end up being too much of a nightmare for those who don’t.
It certainly was for Herod. The good news to the poor often meant bad news for the rich. And the Great couldn’t bare them. Infuriated like a child, he wanted the baby dead. He would to take no chance: No Jew, no Bethlehemite, not one single human on the face of Galilee or Judea was to take away his throne.
As Rome's puppet king, the Great would have none of that. Herod would do his best to deflect the promises of old that spoke of Yahweh sending a righteous pastor to shepherd the people of Israel. Lacking eyes to see and ears to hear, all the Great had was a blindness caused by fame and a lust for power fuelled by might. No surprise that Herod’s executive decree came as costly as Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace.
“Cut their throats. All of them! I want all the newborn dead.”
God’s Kingdom & Pharaoh’s Empire
Enter the memory of Pharaoh, great king of Egypt. Enter, too, the memory of the Hebrew slaves whom Pharaoh saw as a threat to his empire. Troubled by the sort of nightmares that often haunt unqualified rulers, surely the Egyptian superlord put all his bets on Operation Infanticide.
But now the odds were greater. And with Herod acting like Pharaoh, was not Jerusalem mimicking Egypt — the age-old city that came to stand for godlessness and seven-day work weeks? When the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, apparently the Almighty deemed it more secure for the holy family to flee down south.
The tides had turned: for all they knew, Egypt was now safer than Jerusalem. And so on they went, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, sent down on their own little exile into ancient-day Wall Street.
Truth be hinted, the Most High feared for their life. Being poor peasants from Galilee, they did too. If the threat of losing his throne had led Herod to imprison and kill many of his own sons, Mary and Joseph could only imagine what the Great could do to theirs. Tyranny usually trumps pity.
But besides their well-being, perhaps the God of the Exodus had something else in store. Perhaps the with-us-God, longsuffering and compassionate, perhaps that God wanted Jesus the son to experience the life of a political refugee, living as an alien in a foreign land.
The Foundational Tradition, Remixed
The Book of Deuteronomy pressed hard on the crux of the issue. Once subjugates under Pharaoh's yoke, Israel’s alternative society was to exemplify God’s care for surrounding nations:
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt (Deut 10:17-19).
Fast-forward to 1st century Palestine, spotlight falling on the outlanded newborn. What better way to exemplify the laws of Moses than by walking the walk of the true servant king? What better way to understand the fate of a foreigner than becoming one himself?
True, Jesus’s later life embodied the Almighty's active compassion for the destitute. But all that concerned Matthew’s birth saga was Jesus’s helplessness in the arms of his parents. Give the gospels the credit they deserve and meet the God who takes human existence so darn seriously to the point of bursting all bounds of possibility by becoming enfleshed in a nobody from Nazareth. Meet the God-with-us entering the dark night of persecution and political exile; meet Jesus the runaway foreigner taking upon himself the fate of the persecuted.
He surely cried that night while breathing in Mary’s desolate flee from Bethlehem. He surely sensed the pounding blood troubling his mom’s chest as she and Joseph trod down through the valley of the danger of death.
Contemporary psychology has gone a long way to show how the earliest experiences in a child’s life are deeply formative of his or her personality. So, read that back into the outbreak of Jesus’s life and see no other than the God of the Exodus embracing first-hand — not only the plight — but also the destiny of the destitute. Since his birth to his death, the Nazarene was unwelcomed. In the words of biblical scholar John P. Meier, Jesus was a “marginal Jew” — an outcast, from the cradle to the grave.
The Last Shall Be First
But the Most Hight chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise; the weak things of the world to shame the strong. For one, Jesus disrupted the jolly songs whispered by King Herod and his corporate allies. But, alas, he was also celebrated by the evangelists as the one joining feasts and banquets with the lowly.
Jesus was the bringer of good news. In fact, Jesus was the good news: The one who was born an outcast was to become the very arms of the God who welcomes the destitute. As German theologian Jürgen Moltmann once put it, God forsake his son Jesus to such fate so that, in Jesus, God could become the Abba of all the forsaken. (Had they had T-shirts back then, perhaps the most popular one would have read: “Jesus, friend of the poor and the forsaken.”, or, “Jesus, the destitute king.”)
Unlike Herod who lorded it over the people with royal indifference, it must have been rather easy for Jesus to embrace and extend the heavenly welcome to the no-bodies. Being an outcast since his birth, it must have come natural for him to enter in friendship with the undeserving. He did, after all, build up a fame for breaking bread and singing loudly with tax-collectors, lepers and prostitutes. Unglamorous kingdom fellowship.
No wonder they liked him. And, for the no-bodies among us, no wonder we like him too.
For Us, Today
The ‘marginality’ of Jesus remains no small thing these days when some political leaders fail to recognize the signs of our times. To pick just one issue among many, one may recall the flooded coasts of the Caribbean, or the dry hills of northern Africa, or the forest fires of California. We can bring Otto, and Irma, and Katrina to our memories. And then we can do the math, considering that between 600 and 800 million people are estimated to be displaced by the earth-disrupting effects of climate change.
Should world leaders set us up to continue the course with our addiction to fossil fuels, soon a new category of refugees (a.k.a. “climate refugees”) will become commonplace East and West, North and South. And thus with Bonhoeffer we can agree that silence or denial in the face of such evil, is evil itself.
Will we welcome the fleeing Christ, reborn again in these climate refugees? More crucial still, will we become peacemakers upstream, as to avoid the climate exile in the first place?
The refugees may well be our judges, or at the very least our prophets. For they recall the memory of Christmas and all that it once stood for. For their cries will equal, if not surpass, the boisterous ones that broke free that night when Herod, so-called the Great, went wild because Jesus, hailed as King, was born at last.
And no two rulers can ever sit on the same throne.
Image credits: 'The Tree of Life' (1976) by Marc Chagall, Chapel of Cordeliers, Sarrebourg
Eduardo Sasso is the author of A Climate of Desire - a book reconsidering the original roots of Christianity to more fully enable us to respond to the challenges of climate change