Brief synopsis of the readings: Near the end of the Book of Isaiah, Jerusalem is told to arise. The glory of the Lord is rising even as darkness covers the people. All will gather around you. “Everyone in Sheba will come, bringing gold and incense and singing the praise of the Lord. In Matthew’s Gospel some wise men came to Jerusalem in search of Jesus. Herod met with them and sent them to Bethlehem with instructions to report back to him. The wise men followed a rising star and found Jesus and paid him homage. But instead of returning to Herod they were warned to return home a different way.
Normally we hear these readings and expect to hear a sermon on the wise men, and in the past I’ve done exactly that. But this year as I read today’s Gospel I couldn’t help but think about this in the context of last week’s readings on the Holy Family. In an interesting twist, today’s Gospel (Matthew 2: 1-12) comes just before last week’s Gospel (Matthew 2:13-23). In other words, if you’re reading the 2nd chapter of Matthew you’ll first read today’s Gospel and then last weeks’ Gospel.
I couldn’t help but think of the character of Herod. We know a fair amount about him, but don’t think much of him. We know he was a Jew and he cooperated closely with the Roman occupiers.
This may not sound important, but it is. A significant part of the history of the Jews includes their survival from foreign occupations and how each invader viewed them differently.
A few hundred years before Jesus’ birth Israel was conquered by the Greeks and they were clear: they wanted the Jews to stop being Jews and become Greeks (and as a matter of fact we’re at the end of the Jewish feast of Hanukah which celebrates a victory in that war). Their admiration for the naked male body caused them horror over circumcision and puzzlement over Jewish modesty. Jewish survival over Greek rule speaks well of their ability to survive.
But when the Romans came in they really didn’t care about Jewish practices. The Jews were permitted to keep their identity as long as they didn’t challenge Roman rule.
For wealthy Jews like Herod this forced them into a decision: do I oppose Roman rule or do I cooperate in the hopes that I can keep my Jewish identity while ensuring that the Romans will treat us well?
Clearly Herod chose cooperation and, at least at the beginning, we can understand his reasoning. But Herod’s sin and betrayal wasn’t obvious at first. I suggest that he initially saw himself as someone who could ensure that his fellow Jews would honor their Roman occupiers while keeping true to God’s commandments. But somewhere along the line things changed for Herod. We can only speculate but I think we can safely say the closer Herod drifted toward Rome the better his life became.
And somewhere along the line he began to drift away from his fellow Jews. The Romans did not wish to obliterate Jewish identity but they were hardly friendly occupiers and their rule could be harsh. And by the birth of Jesus we find Herod in full betrayal.
Jews of the time (as do Jews today) awaited the coming of the Messiah, the one chosen by God to deliver them to a new Promised Land. When the wise men came to Herod following a star, Herod recognized who they sought. But instead of rejoicing, he recognized that if this newborn is indeed the Messiah his easy life may well be in danger. Under the guise of piety he asked these men to find this child and come back to Jerusalem “so that I may too go and do him homage.” He wanted nothing of the sort: he thought himself so powerful that he could kill the Messiah and thwart God’s plan of salvation. As we learned last week, when the wise men escaped Herod, he reacted in anger and ordered the murder of any child who might be the Messiah.
What strikes me from these events so long ago is how much we continue to see echos of this today. Herod feared losing his job and so gave a horrific order. I wonder sometimes what those soldiers felt about murdering small children: did some refuse and risk losing their jobs? I hope so. But it’s clear that at least some put job security over the sanctity of life.
It pains me to say this but in the last few years here in the United States we’ve seen horrific examples of otherwise good people following orders to tear apart families at our southern border. We live at a time when fear of losing what we have justifies nearly anything.
In the 1930s Germans had no lock on anti-Semitism: it was everywhere. But, like Herod, one man found that he could use the fear that “they” were after what was “ours” to justify mass murder. His success depended on otherwise good people choosing feed their fears and ignore their calling to revere life. And we know what happened.
OK, let me dial this down significantly. We will not be asked to commit murder, or likely any crime, to assuage our fears. But job security can easily claim a disproportionate share of our moral compass. The word “whistleblower” has become popular in the English lexicon in the last few months and our reaction says a great deal about us.
But let us applaud the sacrifices of those who choose the blow the whistle in the face of injustice. Even if they are promised protection they can never trust this. They blow the whistle knowing that their sacrifice may well be great and that their loved ones may also suffer. They blow the whistle because they love justice more than they fear fear.
Ultimately Herod didn’t succeed because he wasn’t powerful enough to thwart God’s plan of salvation. But we can’t ignore the suffering of the Innocents or the pain their families experienced. I guess I would have liked to have seen a whistleblower who called out Herod.
But blowing the whistle happens in subtle ways too. I used to work for an organization that always wanted to keep its employees a little off balance, a little afraid for their jobs. Doing that didn’t make us work harder or better but it did make (most of) us less likely to complain. Seemingly weekly one of the managers would pass down yet another inane rule that had been given to him. When I tried to push back and asked for the necessity of these rules he countered that he was afraid of losing his job. And in the end it didn’t work as they eliminated his position.
Moving forward, let us remember the Holy Family whenever we’re asked to make a poor decision our of fear.