The magi’s story, and Herod’s story

Matthew 2:1-12

There will be no camels, because we’re going on horseback, at least for some of the way. And we won’t arrive there a few hours after everyone else. It will be weeks, perhaps, or months. We aren’t in a hurry. That isn’t the way we work; we are not Europeans. We will discuss the phenomenon, the star, and if it doesn’t go away, and if we still feel curious, we will travel.

We will look in the wrong place. Yes I admit that, because wise men, potentates, intellectuals, call us what you will, we are not infallible. We expect a new power to emerge from the site of the old one. We expect the destination we seek to resemble what our common sense deduces. We will be upset, angry even, to find that Herod is ignorant and that his living space is not the birthplace. We will find it hard and intellectually demeaning to bow the knee to the son of refugees. And all this…all this upset will be compounded when it comes to journeying back, and we discover we have to go home by another way. That’s the trouble with God. He doesn’t let you leave as you came. He sends you back, stripped of your presumptions, making for home by another way.

* * * * * *
Matthew 2:13-23

You people think you know all about me, don’t you? You have me categorised, labelled, and put in a little box. You have me filed away in your minds with the tyrants you hate and fear: Herod the baby-killer, lumped in with the likes of Stalin, Hitler, and the Arab dictators killing their people in your own age. But that’s too easy, far too easy. You’ve made me a scapegoat, without ever having heard things from my point of view.

Consider my position. I had enormous responsibilities. First century Judea was a difficult place to rule. A rumour of a new king threatened to upset the balance of power. When these wise men from the east appeared in my palace and said, ‘we have come to worship the baby born to be King of the Jews’, my first thought was, ‘That’s all I need’.

For a start, I was the King of the Jews. Now, you may think that sounds great; king, I can do what I like, get to live in a palace and all that. Well, let me tell you, getting to be King of the Jews, and staying there, was hard work. I might be the King of the Jews now, but, only by the skin of my teeth.

Palestine was an uncertain place in the first century. A bit like the Central Asia, or much of Africa, at the start of the 21st century. Lots of little kingdoms and tribes battling for supremacy, years of minor wars fuelled by ethnic and religious rivalries. And just over the horizon, a superpower: the Roman Empire. Rome needed someone to sort things out in Palestine. They preferred not do it themselves, perhaps one of the local warlords would oblige. I was their man.

With Rome’s backing, I went to war, and made myself the most powerful man in the region. I brought ruthless war to Palestine, but in the end I brought a kind of peace to the warring factions, even if it meant the execution of most of my opponents. The Roman Senate rewarded me with the title of King of Judea. I built great cities, and built a grand new temple for Jerusalem. I looked after my people, even letting them off some of their taxes when times were hard.

But as time went on I had to be more ruthless. When you’re a king, even your family can be a threat. Family squabbles among royals can lead to civil war, if you aren’t careful. I had my wife, my mother-in-law, and three of my sons assassinated. For political reasons, of course. The same kind of political reasons that led me to murder hundreds of other religious and government officials during my reign. Collateral damage. A price worth paying. They had to die, for the sake of my position, for reasons of high policy, to keep the peace, to keep Rome happy.

None of you are allowed to kill children. There’s never any reason for it, in the life of a citizen, a civilian. But we rulers, those of us in government, we operate by different rules. Sometimes you have to be tough, ruthless. Sometimes there is collateral damage, innocent people get hurt, even children. So heads of state are allowed to kill.

There were those who said I overdid it. They said it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son. They said I got more suspicious, more cruel, as my long reign continued.

But Judea was a dangerous place. I had to make sure Rome was happy, make sure they got their taxes paid, if I was to keep my position. Rome would have no truck with any weakness from me.

This incident about the children of Bethlehem, it was pretty minor. A small town, so perhaps 20 or 30 children involved. Only infants after all, none of them over two year old. It began, as I said, when the Magi turned up. I knew these sorts of people, have a lot of respect for them. Advisers and teachers of the kings of Persia. Experts in astrology, in law, in religion. The sort of men you could respect, for they were guardians of an ancient tradition, their word was reliable.

When men like that travel a distance and demand to see the King, well, of course, you meet them, don’t you? I thought that perhaps they were ambassadors from Persia. But no, they were here on their own account. They’d been watching the stars, that was their job, after all, to watch the stars and advise their masters accordingly. And they’d seen a new star, or some kind of strange phenomenon in the sky. A sign that something special had occurred.

They came to me because the rumour was that a new king would sometime be born in Judea, a king who would be greater than all the kings who came before. They put two and two together, and had decided that the new star meant that the new king would be born in my domains.

I was troubled by this news, and so was all Jerusalem, that is, everyone in government circles. I decided to bring in my theological advisers. Where’s this great king going to be born then, I asked. ‘Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David’ came the reply. I now needed to get rid of these astrologers, and use them to help me find the baby. I met them again, made quite sure they really knew what they were talking about, were really sure of their dates and times, and sent them off on their quest. Of course, I needed them to trust me, to believe I was safe, so I told them them that I would like to know the result of their search, as I too would like to go and worship this special king.

Well, to cut a long story short, they did find him, but they must have sussed me out. They never came back, they slipped out of Judea in disguise through the hills, back to their own country without me knowing they’d gone, let alone telling me where they had found this special child. This called for drastic action. So I sent the army in. They tracked down all the children in Bethlehem born within the last two years, and killed them. Oh, there was weeping and wailing, killing innocent children is never exactly popular. But what did they expect me to do? I had my interests to protect. Rome was breathing down my neck. I couldn’t possibly countenance the thought of another King of the Jews. And the annoying part of it is that apparently the one I was looking for got away…

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