Herod the Not-So-Great
“Herod the Not-So-Great” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Let’s get something straight right now: this is mine and anyone who thinks they are going to take this crown away from me it is going to have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands. I’ve learned a few things as the King of Judea: first, is that you can’t trust anyone; second, is that if you suspect anyone of treason, kill them. Ask questions later. They’re all out to get me.
I am Herod, or as I like to call myself, Herod the Great. Herod isn’t actually my name, it’s my title: when someone is elected president, their name isn’t President. Of course, I didn’t get where I am by some kind of popular vote of the Jewish peasants. I got here by ruthlessly stepping on anyone who got in my way. I am THE Herod, the tetrarch of Judea, appointed by Augustus, Emperor of Rome. I’m like this with Augustus, but I don’t trust him an inch. He put me in this position, and he can pull it away. Romans, Jews, they’re all out to get me. I have to keep proving my loyalty to Rome: a big building project here, some lavish gifts there, maybe a big pork roast at the palace. This might not sit so well with my Jewish subjects, but they owe me a lot. I single-handedly rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, so it would be a capital worthy of my dignity and grandeur. I didn’t do the building myself, of course, the back-breaking labor and crippling taxation were on the backs of my people, but hey, if they don’t like it — kill ‘em. That puts a quick end to labor disputes. I even did a complete renovation of the Temple. I put a golden eagle over the entrance as a symbol of Roman power: keep the Boss happy, covering my bases. Boy, was there a fuss about that. I just watch my back and make sure that anyone who complains out loud only does it once.
Even my family is out to get me. You’d think you could trust your own family, but No. I loved my wife Mariamne, but you can’t trust anyone, especially a beautiful woman. I couldn’t prove she was cheating on me, but I figured she probably was, so I tried to kill her. What else could I do? She moved out of the bedroom, and then I had to charge her with treason. Got my sister to testify against her so I could have her executed. Problem solved. Then Mariamne’s mother moved into the palace. That was going to be trouble. I don’t need my ex-mother-in-law haranguing me. So I had her mother executed, too — without a trial. Turns out I couldn’t trust Mariamne’s sons, either: my sons, my own flesh and blood. They were smart, I’ll give them that; I never actually caught them at it, but I’m sure they were plotting behind my back, scheming how to take this crown away from me. I have no regret about having them executed. They had it coming. Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they weren’t out to get me. You can’t trust anyone. Especially your own family.
So there I was at the palace in Jerusalem, standing on the necks of my people and watching my back, at the top of my game, when some wealthy visitors are announced. Of course I gave them a gracious and royal reception — after they were strip searched to be sure they weren’t carrying concealed weapons. They weren’t Jewish, and they weren’t Roman. They were from the East, they said, and they were rich — obviously. What was their angle, what were they trying to take from me? I didn’t trust these guys for a second. They said they had followed a star to Jerusalem and they were looking for a child who was born King of the Jews. Are you kidding me? These guys didn’t even make a secret of the fact that they were trying to grab my crown. But when you’ve been at this as long as I have, you learn to be smart. Trust no one, kill anyone who gets in your way. Smart. I needed to string them along for a little while, so I had them cool their heels for the afternoon, sent up some cold drinks and hors d’oeuvres.
And then I let my scribes have it: you mean to tell me that the Messiah was born somewhere in Judea where I AM KING and you didn’t know about it? Or maybe you all knew about it and plotted not to tell me? If this is the Messiah, how come there are no prophecies, how come there was no sign except some star? I need answers NOW or heads are going to roll. And I mean that literally. The scribes scrambled around and found where the prophet Micah said that a ruler would be born in Bethlehem. Bethlehem, huh? Trying to restore David’s dynasty, perhaps. Who was behind this? What Jewish insurrectionist would have connections to magicians from the East? Were my scribes even telling the truth, or were they colluding in this plot. There was only one way to find out.
I called the magi back and told them about the prophecy and that the new child king was to be born in Bethlehem. Sweet little boy. “Please go and search diligently for him, and when you have found him, send word back to me so that I may also go and worship him also” I said with a Grinchy smile. And then I let them go. And I waited.
That was two weeks ago. Plenty of time to get to Bethlehem, search the whole pathetic town and get word back to me. This did not go as I had planned. If I do not find this child and put a stop to this King of the Jews sedition right now, I could lose my crown. I’m not worried about the Jews mounting an uprising against me, but if Emperor Augustus thinks I’m losing my iron grip on Judea, he might relieve me of my duties. And where would I be then? I’ve grown accustomed to life in the palace; I have no appetite to be a low-level local official. I don’t think the surviving members of my family will take me in.
What can I do? I can’t trust anyone in Jerusalem, there’s a plot brewing in Bethlehem, and obviously the magi double-crossed me and went home another way. There’s a chance that the prophecy might be true. How can I eliminate this threat to my power? Where is that child? I can’t kill every baby boy in Bethlehem. Or can I? Am I the Herod or am I the Herod? They’re Jewish, sure, but who cares about babies? Their mothers? Their mothers don’t matter to me. I can’t ask my Jewish body guard to do it. They’d be squeamish that way. I’ll use Romans soldiers. That will show the people of Bethlehem what happens to babies who plot against the Herod. You can’t trust anyone. I’ll kill them all. Guards!
Good morning! Herod, what a jerk. By almost any account, he was an evil man. We have the biblical account from Matthew chapter 2:16-18 when he ordered the murder of all the baby boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area who could have been the Messiah. There is no historical record outside of the Bible which records this slaughter of the innocents. If this is a story which was told to illustrate the how paranoia would drive a ruler to kill his own people, maybe we can be grateful that it may not have actually happened — or happened in just the way that Matthew records it. There is plenty of other writing about Herod the Great, primarily by early historian Josephus. That stuff about his wife Mariamne and her mother — part of the historical record. Herod did execute his wife, Mariamne, two of their sons, and her mother. And it doesn’t stop there: he married another woman named Mariamne, Mariamne II and had more sons with her. Given what happened to Mariamne I, I can’t imagine why any woman would consent to be Mariamne II — was she also named Mariamne, or did he just call her that? — either way, it’s pretty creepy. Herod had 4 or 5 other wives, some at Herod the same time, since polygamy was still legal in Judasim. This led to a whole sprawling, incestuous family of Herods — one of his wives was his niece and another was his cousin — which just goes to show that you probably can’t trust your own family when there are so many tangled loyalties. We’ll hear from one of those sons in two weeks: another Herod.
Matthew 2:19 tells us that Jesus and his parents returned to Israel “when Herod died.” You’ll remember that an angel told them to flee to Egypt before Herod when on his killing spree in Bethlehem. Herod’s death was a protracted affair: a death fit for an evil king. Josephus wrote that Herod died of an excruciatingly painful putrefying illness of undetermined cause. It came to be called “Herod’s Evil.” It was so painful that Herod tried to end his own life by stabbing himself to death, but was prevented from doing so by one of his nephews. One wonders if this was an act of compassion or an act of revenge. History doesn’t tell us.
Contrary to what you might be thinking, the purpose of this sermon is not to point out the evils of murder, incest, and ruthless ambition. Those things are evil, of course — but if you need me to tell you that, things have probably already gone too far. No, I want to talk about the much more common condition of operating out of a place of fear; specifically a fear for ourselves and our own interests which blinds us to the needs or motivations of other people. Fear may be deep-seated and personal, rational or irrational, and it doesn’t stay neatly in the categories we create for it: a fear of growing old and having no one to care for you may begin as a rational concern but become an obsession which actually drives family or caregivers away. While a fear of spiders — probably always a totally reasonable thing.
I believe the antidote to fear is faith: a trust in something larger than ourselves and something more important than our self-preservation. Herod was so preoccupied with his power and his legacy, that he was willing to kill anyone who got in his way, and he completely missed the King of Kings. Herod was so worried that no one would mourn his death that he arranged to have a number of prominent men executed when he died, to insure that the mourning would be genuine. Is that messed up, or what? Fear can make us blind to the needs of anyone else, and wreck our perspective of ourselves and what we need.
1 John 4:18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. Faith is trusting in the love which Christ has for us and for all people. Faith puts us in our place — which is in the hands of God. When we trust in that love, we know that we don’t have to earn it, and that no one can take it away.
Fear not! Jesus loves you. Don’t be a jerk. Amen