King Herod’s evil actions prompt us to ask: What’s wrong with us?
By Pierre Gilbert
Christmas still and surprisingly evokes more than just pure entertainment. There is a strange but noticeable kind of sentimentality that unexpectedly emerges for a few weeks. Hollywood sings the praises of the “Christmas spirit.” Ebenezer Scrooge erupts on our TV screens, and once again that old miserable, tight-fisted creature is transformed by the spirits of Christmas into a generous, turkey-giving, benevolent elderly gentleman.
It’s clear to me that we maintain a sweet and sour relationship with Christmas. While we see it as a time to party and spend big—the survival of our economy, no less, being at stake—the Christmas season compels us to reflect on the less fortunate. Until New Year’s Eve, that is, at which time we are free to let go of our therapeutic guilt and wallow in the welcome revelry of the New Year celebrations.
You have to admit there is something extraordinary about Christmas. The birth of Christ still has an energy that the enormous weight of a 21st century secular humanism is unable to crush.
Christmas is about…
To understand the significance of Christmas, we need to ask a most basic question: What is it really all about? A cursory look around us will reveal that Christmas is about glitter, crowded malls, nauseatingly sentimental TV specials, time off, sumptuous meals, the traditional heartburns and let’s not forget the presents.
Of course there is a baby in there somewhere. Everybody loves babies. What is not to like about them? They are cute, cuddly and have an uncanny ability to attract politicians. Is that it? Is that what Christmas is really all about?
Those of us who are a little more theologically sophisticated believe that Christmas is primarily about God taking on human form. It’s about God becoming one of us. But why would God do this? What could possibly motivate the infinitely powerful Creator of the universe to put himself through this kind of trouble? The answer is both simple and profound: God has a project.
From eternity past, God intends to create a people made up of men and women who will be free and who will choose to love and serve him for all eternity. For thousands of years, God is painstakingly working at this project—calling, prodding, redeeming one man and one woman at a time. This project predates the creation of the world, spans all of human history and is even now rushing into eternity.
Great projects, great obstacles
But great projects always involve formidable obstacles. From the very beginning, something goes terribly wrong with the human race. You can read all about it in Genesis 3.
The fall, as we now call it, is catastrophic. It affects the cosmos, human nature and the entire course of human history. The aftermath is so devastating that God should walk away.
But infinite love and commitment never give up. After the fall, God immediately sets his eternal plan of redemption into motion. The first stages of this initiative unfold throughout the history of Israel. When the stage is set, the last piece of the puzzle is then put into place: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
Why does Christ have to die for the sins of humanity? What does he save us from? This may seem like a trite question, but throughout history, powerful forces have sought to trivialize the answer. And our generation is no exception. The Gospel of Matthew offers a profound insight into this question.
Massacre of the Innocents
In the story known as the Massacre of the Innocents (Matt. 2:13-23), the evangelist opens a window on the terrible alien-ness that infects human nature. Herod the Great hears that magi from the East are looking for a newborn king. This is bad news for everybody, for Herod perceives this as a personal threat to his rule. The announcement that a new king is born represents an issue for most kings, but this is particularly true for this Herod.
It is tempting to describe Herod as a mentally ill man who comes from a family where mental illness runs wildly through the genes, but that is not fair to those who truly suffer from mental disorders. While the members of the Herodian dynasty can fairly be described as disturbed individuals, I don’t think mental illness does justice to what’s really going on with King Herod.
It is far more accurate to describe Herod the Great as a man who has, like so many before and after him, given in to the siren call of the evil that inhabits us all (Matt. 15:18-19). He has fed his evil impulses until they become a raging fire, an irrepressible corruption that consumes him from the inside out, rising to within a fraction of an inch from the surface of his skin, leaving the moral pus to gush out at the slightest touch.
The darkness of the soul has grown long and thick tentacles around the king’s heart. This is the Herod who has his wife, Mariamne, tried and executed on suspicion of unfaithfulness. Mariamne’s mother, Alexandra, her grandfather and brother suffer the same fate. Around 6 B.C., he has his two sons, Aristobulus and Alexander, executed as well. On his deathbed, he orders the members of prominent families to be shut up in the hippodrome in Jericho, to be executed the moment he dies. Herod wishes to ensure an outpouring of genuine grief upon the news of his demise. The order is never carried out, but you get the picture.
In any event, Herod is unable to locate the child. But this evil man will not be so easily thwarted. He orders the murder of every little boy who lives in the territory where Jesus is believed to be. “A cry was heard in Ramah—weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead” (Matt 2:18, NLT).
What’s wrong with us?
The Massacre of the Innocents is not only about one man’s surrender to evil. It’s also about the brokenness that feeds our ferocious hostility towards the living God (Col. 1:21). Matthew tells the story to compel us to face our humanity and to ask the question we must all ask sooner or later: What’s wrong with us? As this question arises from our souls, we despair and grieve and desperately wonder if there is a cure for what we have become.
It is the meaningless death of innocent children that mercilessly reminds us of what sin has done to us. In fact, human history is so tainted by sin that even God could not intervene to save us without getting entangled by the evil that is part and parcel of the fabric of human society and the human heart. Keep in mind that Christ’s birth indirectly sentences to death 30 to 40 little boys who would otherwise live. But such is the nature of reality.
Who shall deliver us from the suffocating weight of sin and the scandal of death? For a lot of people today, there is no answer. That’s just the way things are. No use thinking about it.
But for those who desperately seek a solution, Matthew doesn’t leave us hanging in midair. In verse 20, a ray of light cuts through the darkness. "Get up!" the angel said. ‘Take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead’" (Matt. 2:20, NLT).
What a promise! The one who faced death and opposition even in childhood and throughout his life has and will be victorious. But his victory doesn’t only extend over an evil ruler. As incisively painful as sin and death might be for us now, the story of Christ’s victory over Herod is the assurance promise that one day death will be engulfed in a hurricane of life and joy.
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests’” (Luke 2:13-14, NIV).
Pierre Gilbert is associate professor of Bible and theology at Canadian Mennonite University. Gilbert is also associate professor of Old Testament Studies with Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary Canada, the theological school of the Canadian Conference of MB Churches with two campuses: one in Langley, BC, and the second at CMU in Winnipeg, Man.
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