The Politics of Herod
The Politics of Herod
January 10, 2016
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
The wise men from the East have come asking about a newborn king. This is important news in a kingdom, important news indeed. And it was apparently news to the king, King Herod. Herod summons the priests and scribes. I imagine them rushing over to Herod, panicked and not knowing what is going on.
What’s this about a newborn king? A Messiah born to the people? They stutter and stammer in my imagination. A king…a king you say? Well give us a moment. The leader of the group gestures behind his back frantically as a group of men wrack their brains trying to figure out what is really at issue.
The priests and scribes then told him: “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'” There was a prophecy, a foretelling from long before about the coming of a king, a messiah, to lead the people out of difficulties. This was not good news for Herod.
Herod was king, which is of course a big deal. He was the King of the Jews. This was an impressive achievement because he was not born a king and, quite frankly, was really not much of a Jew. His father had been an Edomite, meaning from the land of Edom rather than Israel proper, and Herod’s people had only become followers of Judaism in his lifetime. Herod became king through good fortune, a lucky bet really. His family had sided with one of the factions of the Roman civil war, the winning faction notably.
Herod was appointed a tetrarch, meaning the ruler of a quarter of a Roman province. That portion of the world has always been an area of dispute, it seems, and another empire, this time the Parthians, sought to gain control by putting their own ruler in place. The Parthians hailed from the area now known as Iran, formerly Persia. Anyway, Herod fled the new Parthian regime and went to Rome. The Romans did not like to lose, particularly in areas that they had so recently conquered such as Judea. So they sent an army.
Now somehow Herod managed to get himself declared king – how is not overly clear, but he was a great fan of the Romans. He returned with that Roman army and in a few years conquered his kingdom. He then wiped out all potential rivals from the old line of kings, and eventually even his own two heirs – Caesar Augustus once said that he would rather have been born one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons. So when Herod mildly inquires as to the exact location of this newborn King of the Jews, it was perhaps no surprise to anyone, except these so-called wise men.
The wise men, the magi, came from the East. Now what is to the east of Judea? Well there is a big desert on the Arabian Peninsula but that was not of great importance at the time. A bit further north, however, there was the area around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, one of the origin points for civilization. The land of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and then the Persians. The Persians who were now operating under a different name, the Parthians. The Parthians who had driven Herod out of Judea and had fought to keep their puppet king on the throne. The wise men may not have been overly wise by having placed themselves in the hands of Herod. They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod – a dream, perhaps, or the recollection of an extended, bloody war that placed Herod on the throne.
This was a matter of politics. Politics that got Herod’s family into positions of power. Politics that almost led to Herod’s death. Politics that put him back on top with a proverbial crown on his head. I honestly have no idea if he actually wore a crown – representations show Herod with what looks like an upside down golden vase upon his head. Herod maneuvered himself into place to be the King of the Jews and his grip upon power was ensured through ruthlessness and fear. There is no account outside of the Bible about his efforts to find Jesus, but it was within his established character to hunt down any potential rivals who might threaten his crown, or his upside down golden vase.
The idea that kings would be involved in politics might seem strange. Kings were in charge, born to the throne, fathers and sons and grandsons for generations. But the Romans controlled who sat on any throne and the Roman emperors themselves were not above fighting their way to the top. There was intrigue and collusion, whispered plots and hidden assassins. There were triumphant generals claiming victory only to then march on Rome to claim the mantle of emperor. There was a lot going on back then, a lot of politics.
“Politics” has its origins in the Greek language as well as Greek thought. The Greek word politikos means “of, for, or relating to citizens.” Politics refers to making a common decision for the members of a group, whether it is a group of citizens, the members of a community, or some other assembly of people. So politics is a framework for decision. This is how we decide what is going to happen, what will become the policies put into place as a result – no coincidence of word choice.
Rome stopped being a Republic during the reign of Caesar Augustus, in about the year 27 B.C. The Roman Senate granted Octavian extraordinary powers including the right to call himself “Augustus” meaning “illustrious one.” He made a show of returning those special powers to the Senate, but actually he kept direct control of the newly organized empire.
Politics therefore may not seem to be the correct word, for there was not a lot of, for, or relating to the citizens anymore. There were the trappings of politics still, a senate and other vestiges of a republic. The word republic is a shortened version of res publica simply meaning the “thing of the people” in Latin. It may have seemed that Rome was still a thing of the people, but eventually everyone knew that it was such in name only and people stopped pretending. Octavian became Augustus, Emperor of Rome the former republic. Herod became Herod the Great, King of the Jews, placed there by Rome and remaining there by force.
Politics are about how citizens go about making decisions. This is the way we rule ourselves, not by emperors and kings, but by collective decisions and popularly elected representatives. This is the substance of a republic, the requirement of any type of democracy. In Roman times, certain patrician member of society could vote, meaning people of a certain class with land and wealth could determine who would rule the republic. That changed over the centuries and more and more influence was allowed for the plebians, or lower Roman classes. Rome democratized, but in time imperialized. How those two processes intertwine would be the subject for a book rather than a sermon, but it would be hard to imagine them as unrelated.
Some of you may be aware that there is an election coming up. It seems like a few hundred people are running for President and that they have been doing so for about a decade. I envy those countries in which elections last for a month or two. I would love not to talk about it for a while. Elections seem to start the day after the last election was held. We never seem to escape politics.
Which is an odd way of thinking about it. The word politics means of, for or relating to citizens. If one is a citizen then all of this political wrangling ostensibly has to do with citizenship, the citizenry. It has to do with the policies of how things are to be run, how the res publica will be managed. And yet there does not seem to be a sense that this is about being a citizen, being engaged in the planning of how our society will be guided. What then is it all about?
For many years, I was quite involved in politics. I worked on campaigns, I helped strategize, I even ran for office three times and won two out of three elections — the last two in time and hopefully the last ever. I was an old politico, a warhorse, a partisan. That was then. It seems a long time ago.
Some mornings people have asked me what I thought of the prior night’s debate. I have nothing to say. I have not watched any of the debates and have absolutely no desire to see any in the future. I simply cannot watch anymore. I become ill listening to even a small portion of the broadcasts. I have to look away when a political ad comes on television. I have developed an allergic reaction to politics. And Benadryl is not helping.
Politics, as the origins of the word suggest, is supposed to be about being a citizen. What it means to be a citizen, how to work together as citizens, how to struggle toward shared goals with shared purpose as concerned members of a common enterprise. And yes, of course, we do not and will not always agree as to what would be the next best step, the pathway forward in the near future and in the long term. There are often disputes, even fundamental disagreements along the way toward some conclusion. It was never meant to be an easy way of being together. The problem I have with the current state of affairs is that we have stopped being together. We have stopped being engaged in a political process, meaning of citizens, leading to policies, meaning citizen based and guided plans. Citizens have little or nothing to do with the creation of policies. And citizens have become the targets of politics rather than the source from which politics supposedly arise.
When Herod ruled over the land of Judea, he used various means to control the people. He used force, sending soldiers to punish and executioners to destroy. At the time, there were also major social forces shifting in Jewish society. Most Jews were involved in agriculture and this had historically been through small family farms and herds. The Roman system of government required high levels of taxes and the local Jewish authorities like Herod and the high priest also maintained their own tax levies against the public. By one account, the typical farmer had to pay half of a farm’s annual yield just for taxes.
Small farmers struggled and borrowed money to stay afloat. It was illegal for Jews to charge interest, but wealthy lenders avoided the rule by demanding the quick return of the loans and then charging crippling late penalties. The loans went into default, the farmers lost their land to the lenders, and they ended up working the same land essentially as slaves under their former bankers.
Many workers fled to the cities and Herod put them to work. He had them build public baths and palaces. He had them toil at the task of transforming Judea into a Roman province, essentially uprooting their own history to make way for the occupation. Herod also restored and increased the size of the Temple in Jerusalem, but this did not fool anyone into thinking that Herod was truly a King of the Jews. He was a king for Rome.
As I was writing this last night, I was imagining listening to it, as strange as that might sound. Sitting out in the audience, picturing in my mind what to do with this information in the present, this story from the past. And having been in politics for many years, I thought about how I might “spin” it, to shift your perspectives one way or another. Small farmers suffering under heavy tax burdens. The loss of traditional ways of living, generations on the same land now cast aside. Working families struggling against uncaring bankers or overreaching government officials or some other ready-made villain.
The term “working families” is one of my favorite bits of modern propaganda. “Working families” conjures up an image in the mind, but that image changes depending upon who is listening. A working class Joe trying to make ends meet but the “Man’ is keeping him down. A young professional family, bright eyed and ready to take on the world if only Big Government would get out of the way.
Working, meaning they have jobs and deserve our concern. Families, meaning good, clean, wholesome folk, not some unwed mothers and welfare queens, goldbricks and lay-abouts. Or how about working families, not fat cat, rich kids. Silver spoon types with tax shelters living off the labors of others yet never having to work a day in their lives. Many ways to hear the same words.
“Working families” is an interesting term because every political campaign seems to use it even though no one shares a common definition. It is political tofu, absorbing whatever flavor is added to its otherwise squishy blandness. Next time you hear it, keep all this in mind.
This is a symptom of a wider and deeper problem. We have become incapable of hearing each other. I will say that again – we are incapable of hearing each other. If the president of the United States gives a speech, it is as if two different speeches were given. Other politicians immediately begin dissecting and reassembling the words into little Frankenstein monsters to be released onto the airwaves and morning papers. Media outlets selectively present the information to stoke a particular fire under particular people. The effort to manage and to massage the attention of Americans has turned them into consumers of information and no longer citizens acting on that information. We are buying brands of politics, but instead of being gluten free bread we are being served substance free information, nuance free advice. The level of political discourse in this country is so bad that we as a society are politically starving to death.
This is an election year. And as it is such, I would like to make one thing perfectly clear. I will not now, nor will I ever, say for whom you should vote. Never going to happen. If you ask me on the street for whom I am voting, I might tell you, but please do not take that as any expectation from me toward you. It would be wildly improper for me expect so.
But there is a difference between directing who gets the vote politically and discussing matters of moral importance. And I use very simple questions for determining what is appropriate for me to discuss up here in the pulpit. Is it in the Bible? Did Jesus and the prophets talk about it? Would it matter to God? I consider those to be matters worthy of mention and if there is some overlap with politics, it is not my intention to steer you one way or another. It is my intention to get you thinking, though.
As citizens of a republic, we are called upon to help decide how this nation moves forward. And as religious people, we call out in our prayers every Sunday. We ask that God will replenish all those with authority with grace, to incline to God’s will, and to walk in God’s ways – right there in the book. And so we must understand the nature of God’s grace, will, and ways in order to assess those leaders and to choose among the various candidates to become leaders. And this intellectual effort on our part is not only about listening to who says what during a debate or on a campaign ad. These are suspect forms of communication that often have everything to do with getting our attention and nothing to do with what will actually happen.
To walk in God’s ways does not mean will walk but also to have walked. Has that person lived a life that reveals a good character and moral outlook? I do not mean a perfect life, I do not mean a life without mistakes and struggles. A man or a woman can fall down and rise again and the manner by which that obstacle was overcome can say more about a person’s character than all the success in the world. Good does not mean perfect.
Will he or she incline to God’s will, as you have come to understand it? Has he or she walked in God’s ways, meaning tried to do the right thing, tried to help the most people, tried to make this nation and this world a better place? And most importantly, will this person be willing to serve rather than be served?
That by the way is the difference between a president and a king, to serve or to be served. And as citizens of a republic, we should not be trying to elect a king. Whether we get a king or not depends entirely upon the citizens of the republic. So eventually, I am going to have to start listening. Oy vey and Amen.