If, as the late Raymond Brown was fond of saying, the infancy accounts in Matthew and Luke are “the gospel in miniature,” then this Sunday’s gospel may be read as Matthew’s preview of the passion and resurrection. As with the passion accounts, we go astray if we read ourselves into this story in ways that are too easy, too comforting. If we don’t find something of ourselves in the person of Herod the Great, we’re cutting ourselves far too much slack.
Historical accounts of Herod the Great suggest a ruler wily enough to switch allegiances just in time and pragmatic enough to execute his own children when politics demanded. An Idumaean rather than ethnically Jewish, he was nonetheless named “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate while in exile.
After reclaiming his throne – with help from his Roman connections – Herod settled down to the business of governance. He built cities and fortresses, including the famous Masada, improved water supply to Jerusalem, and, most famously, rebuilt the Second Temple. You might even call his agenda “progressive,” even if his methods were rather rough.
Yet most today remember him as the man who ordered the slaughter of the innocents, a plot which, Matthew says, the infant Jesus barely escaped. Joseph – the human hero of Matthew’s infancy account – follows the dream angel’s command and takes Jesus to Egypt, the place of Israel’s historical bondage. When death at last defeats Herod, Jesus appears, alive, with his family in the Galilean backwater of Nazareth.
Herod, of course, knew nothing of the crucified and risen Jesus. If his bloody response to a new threat from Bethlehem is historically accurate – the “slaughter of the innocents” is unique to Matthew; not even Flavius Josephus, who otherwise doesn’t shy from dishing dirt on Herod, mentions it – then he surely understood himself as acting out of political necessity, protecting his position and the progress he brought his kingdom.
W. H. Auden, in his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, presents Herod in this way, worried that an infant, believed by some to be God Incarnate, threatens to destroy the reason, idealism and justice he has labored to advance:
Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilization must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilization always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate? 0 dear, why couldn’t this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid.
Herod’s problem, in the end, is that no god worthy of the name would be so disrespectful of his progressive agenda, nor so foolish as to become truly human, and therefore vulnerable:
…for me personally at this moment it would mean that God had given me the power to destroy Himself. I refuse to be taken in. He could not play such a practical joke. Why should he dislike me so? I’ve worked like a slave. Ask anyone you like. I’ve read all the official documents without skipping. I’ve taken elocution lessons. I’ve hardly ever taken bribes. How dare He allow me to decide? I’ve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven’t had sex for a month. I object. I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.
Auden had his reasons for portraying Herod, who wouldn’t be mistaken for a liberal, progressive, or conservative today, in this way. Yet I suspect all of us, in our own way, have trouble with an incarnate, vulnerable God who invites us to turn our life projects upside down and follow him to an uncertain end. We’ve all worked so hard, meant so well, sacrificed so much to trade away what we have coming for something so flimsy as faith. We all know Herod’s motivation, if not his power, from the inside.
Now that Christmas is here, how will you live in light of the vulnerable Incarnation? How much of your agenda will you part with to follow “Jesus the Savior…come for to die?”