There are some similarities between Herod’s choices and behaviors, and those we’ve seen in recent history on the news, and to a lesser extent, experience in our lives and within ourselves.
How do we respond to the Herod-like figures in our lives?
Or the Herod-like behaviors within ourselves?
But first, let’s begin with Herod.
Biographers describe Herod the Great as a complicated figure.* The Roman Empire appointed him to govern the region of Judea on their behalf, promoting Hellenistic culture, better known to us as Greek culture. He worked well under Caesar, Cassius, Antony, and Octavian Augustus, quickly shifting allegiances with every change in leadership. Yet Herod was not from a Roman background himself. He was an aristocratic outsider who advanced the Roman agenda.
In actuality, Herod had been raised a practicing Jew. To improve his social standing, he married into a family long connected to the high priesthood, but he did not have the correct ancestry to claim that role for himself. Acting on behalf of Rome, wearing a false title as their king, he was rejected by the Jewish community. Here again, Herod was an aristocratic outsider.
Herod seemed to earnestly walk the line between these two communities, never quite making his way into either one. He promoted the Greek way of life, which ensured the region's stabilization and Rome’s protection. Walking this line even helped preserve some aspects of Jewish culture, but not enough to earn him any respect.
In some ways, Herod presents as an unscrupulous figure that no one likes, but everyone seems to need. Rome and Herod used one another for their mutual benefit. Herod and powerful people within Judea used each other in the same way. It was a cycle of selfish behaviors, most of which were rooted in chasing after the allusion of power and control.
Biographers report that during his tenure as king of Judea, Herod:
“...brought his kingdom considerable prosperity. He stabilized the economy
and reduced taxes. He encouraged trade and built the splendid port city of
He also led a troubled personal life, murdering his wife and some of his children. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that when the wise men took another road home, Herod ordered every male infant near Bethlehem killed. And while there is no historical proof this happened, based on his family life, it’s clear that Herod had the capacity for such evil.
As one biographer put it,
“Like many people with a strong will to power, Herod could not face the idea of losing it.”*
When Herod was made aware that wise men were searching for a child born king of the Jews, the text describes him as being frightened (Matthew 2:3). Out of fear he uses his power and authority to gather all the chief priests and scribes seeking an explanation as to who this king might be. They advise Herod that the prophet Micah foretold of a ruler who would shepherd the people of Israel (Matthew 2:1-12 & Micah 5:2).
Herod then called for the wise men, interviewed them, and charged them with returning to Herod to share the child’s location. Instead, the wise men are warned in a dream to return home another way. Similarly, Joseph is warned in a dream to take his family and escape to Egypt, where they live as refugees until Herod’s death.
It would be easy to hear about Herod’s behaviors, particularly in light of Matthew’s story of Herod ordering the massacre of the innocents, and labeling him as evil (Matthew 2:16-18). The antagonist; the villain of this story. As though only truly horrible people have the capacity for such evil.
That would be nice, wouldn’t it? If things were so simple and binary as there being good people and bad people. In reality, we are all complicated.
Herod is no exception. Yes, he is a privileged person, who lived a very comfortable life, yet also never quite fit in. Meaning Herod may have never felt seen, known, genuinely loved, or accepted. We’ll never know with any certainty, but I can’t help but wonder if he coped with his fears by emulating others who seemed to have it all; grabbing power and influence. Then he could ensure he was ‘seen’ in this powerful role, even if he was never truly known. I have to believe that behind some of these horrific choices and behaviors is a desperate and deeply broken person, who has learned to survive by forgoing any and all care of others, choosing instead to preserve the self at all costs.
Herod chose to make himself the center, when God, in the form of this child in Bethlehem, will grow up to tell us Love is the Way. Self-sacrificial love of God and neighbor is the Way. Yet Herod’s fear drives his selfishness and leaves a wake of destruction in its path.
I was reminded earlier this week that the anniversary of the Capital Riot will always happen on Epiphany. Which means for the rest of our lives we will celebrate the unfolding revelation of Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One, while also remembering another outsider, who went to unnerving lengths to cling to his own power and position. For many of us, this anniversary touches a raw nerve that we’re still processing two years later.
Behind the events of that day is another Herod-like figure, someone with a strong will to power who could not face the idea of losing it. Someone who chose to make himself the center, instead of the country he was called to serve, and the global community he was called to partake in on our behalf.
We witness Herod-like figures far more often than we would care to admit. Watch the news, read a book, or stream a tv show and we can see these same behavioral patterns, insecurities and fears that corrupt our best selves. At times we also can discover our own Herod-like moments when we see these same patterns and insecurities within ourselves. Whenever we choose to serve our own fear over the well being of the community - whether that be a neighborhood, faith community, school, workplace, or family. And while it’s tempting to want to fix all that is wrong out in the world, maybe our best next step is examining our own behaviors, choices, insecurities, and motivations.
There are many different kinds of fears that can motivate our actions. Fears that we are bad, unwanted, worthless, defective, incapable; fears of being alone, trapped in pain; fears of being controlled or in conflict with others.**
What matters is not that we ‘fix’ our fear, but that we make space for it, get curious about it, and offer ourselves compassion. By engaging in this dance, we are better able to offer ourselves compassion and discover some inner healing. This empowers us to offer compassion to the people in our lives. It is an act of sharing God’s love and healing in a broken world. It is how we begin to walk the Way of Love that the child in Bethlehem calls us into.
What if this Epiphany season when we feel insecure, broken, or afraid like Herod, we choose not to react, but instead to intentionally offer ourselves compassion? How might it reveal God’s Love for us, in us, and through us?
Is it possible that offering ourselves more compassion will give us a greater capacity to offer others compassion? Those we live and work beside? Those who challenge and frighten us? Those we are convinced will quite literally drive us bonkers? How might all of this help us make God’s Love manifest in our world? I challenge us each to embrace compassion this month, and I hope next month you’ll let me know what your experience with intentional compassion has been like.
We are blessed to have a diversity of preaching voices in our parish. Our guild of preachers is a mixture of lay and clergy. We hope you enjoy the varied voices.
Meet our Preachers