ChristmasTide Sermon, Jan 1, 2017
Herod the Great was a piece of work. He was born about 73 years before Jesus, into a world where Rome was the super power, but not the only power, and there were small regions of ethnic and religious populations. Herod was an astute and ruthless political strategist. His family served as Ethnarchs, or ruling agents installed by the Romans to implement political leadership over a common ethnic group or homogeneous kingdom – in this case, the Jews. When he was 28 years old, he was appointed Governor of Galilee, which is a region in the north of modern-day Israel – and the lake found there is what scripture refers to as the Sea of Galilee. And by the time he died, as a result of civil unrest, riots, and political allegiances and assassinations, the Romans had named him “the king of the Jews”, his rule encompassed Jerusalem and all of Judea, and he had created his own dynasty by naming his sons his successors.
Herod the Great is known as the greatest builder in Jewish history. He spent lavish sums on his various building projects and generous gifts to other kingdoms, including Rome. His buildings were very large, ambitious projects. Herod was responsible for the construction of the Temple Mount – the most sacred site in Jerusalem where all Jews journeyed to in order to make sacrifices, and where Jesus would have turned over the tables, calling it a ‘den of thieves’. A portion of this Temple remains today in Jerusalem, and is known as the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall. If you’ve ever seen pictures of modern day Israel, you have probably seen pictures of Orthodox Jewish men praying at this wall.
While Herod's zeal for building transformed Judea, his motives were not selfless. All these vast projects were aimed at gaining the support of the Jews and improving his reputation as a leader. They likely brought employment and opportunities for the people, and weren’t limited to the Jews - Herod also built pagan cities because he wanted to appeal to the country’s substantial pagan population as well. In order to fund these expenses, Herod utilized a taxation system that weighed heavily on the Judean people. Herod's taxes garnered a bad reputation – and yet his constant concern for his reputation led him to make frequent, expensive gifts, increasingly emptying the kingdom's coffers, and upsetting his Jewish subjects. Despite the economic burden placed by Herod's building projects and gifts, to be fair, there were some instances where Herod took it upon himself to provide for his people during times of need, such as severe famine.
We know all of this because of the writings of a man named Josephus Flavius, a scholar of Roman and Jewish descent who wrote two detailed books recounting this particular time in Roman and Jewish history. I am telling you this, selfishly and shamelessly, in the hopes to pique your interest for a speaker on the history and contemporary reality of this part of the world, who will be visiting us the first week of February. Jared Goldfarb, my friend and our Educator during our Study Tour of Israel and Palestine where I learned most of this, will be travelling and teaching in the US next month. I am excited to say that he is able to fit in a visit here in Hastings and will offer several opportunities for us to learn from his extensive historical, archeological, religious and political knowledge of his part of the world.
Now back to Herod the Great. With great political cunning came great paranoia as well. Herod was known as a tyrant, and his harsh brutality was condemned by Jewish judges known as the Sanhedrin. Herod's despotic rule showed through his security measures aimed at suppressing the contempt the Jews had towards him. Herod used secret police to monitor and report the feelings of the general populace towards him. He sought to prohibit protests, and had opponents removed by force. He also had a bodyguard of 2,000 soldiers.
Herod also built 5 fortresses, never more than a days’ travel from any of his residential cities, where he and his remaining family could flee in the case of insurrection. On my trip to Israel in 2013, we visited one of these fortresses, known as Masada – a word that literally means ‘fortress’. Masada is a lone mountain in the desert, overlooking the Dead Sea, one thousand feet high and very difficult to ascend. It is a perfect place to hide out and regroup, and was first used for this purpose 100 years earlier by a different ruling group, the Hasmodeans. When Herod the Great sold out the Hasmonean dynasty to Rome, he managed to secure the fortress – only this fortress now had to be done in Herodian style. He went to Masada and built an entire city upon the mountain, complete with two palaces, agricultural space, Roman bath houses, and a system to manipulate and collect water. Herod recognized that access to water was the critical linchpin in a survival plan in the desert, and built a canal directing the flow of water during the rainy season into a hollowed out space half way up the mountain of Masada. This way, should he ever be attacked, no one living on Masada would have to leave the mountain to get water. It was then effectively impenetrable.
The construction of at least one of the palaces, on the other hand, was unnecessary and thought to be for intimidation and image, as it literally hung off the cliff of the mountain facing Jerusalem and would denote the majestic power of it’s inhabitants. There’s no explanation for why Herod needed a second palace, or a bathhouse for that matter. But that’s the Herodian style – grand excess.
Herod’s family was not exempt from his paranoia. In the course of his campaign to have power over Judea, he married the niece of his enemy, who was also the granddaughter to the current king, to cement his claim to the throne when he ultimately overthrew that enemy – regardless of the fact he was already married and had a child. So this first family was banished, and ultimately the second wife was tried and put to death, along with her mother. He installed his 17 year old brother in law as a high priest because he feared losing the title of king of the Jews, and then had him drowned a year later at a party. He repeated this pattern of paranoia years later, calling for the trial and execution of two of his own sons and another brother in law. Ceasar was rumored to have said that he’d rather be one of Herod’s pigs than a member of his family.
I am also telling you this because knowing all these characteristics of Herod the Great helps me with this passage, known as the slaughter of Innocents. As our scripture goes, Herod the Great ordered the slaughter of all children under two years old in Bethlehem – although there is a bit of discrepancy in time, since Herod is documented to have died 4 years before the birth of Christ. Other than our Matthew scripture, we have no historical record of this horrific episode – although with Bethlehem being a small rural village with only several hundred inhabitants and probably no more than 20 children of this age, so it’s possible this number of victims didn’t garner the attention of historians of the time.
Many of my clergy friends struggled this week with how to explain why God would warn one family and leave up to 20 others to suffer indescribable grief. Certainly they weren’t deserving of such pain. And certainly, this sacrifice wasn’t God’s will. Rather for me, knowing more about Herod, and his true character, makes it easier to see the evils that our flawed humanity makes possible.
The life of Herod the Great, for all his greatness, is completely dominated by fear. Herod’s actions result from a worldly understanding of what is power and what is might, and his fear of losing power or might controls his actions, overpowers his decisions and, by the end of his life, even invades his sanity. And ultimately that fear manifests in death 20 times over – for his family, for his people, and for 20 innocents.
God tells us that there is another way. God’s word from the angels to the shepherds, and in dreams to Joseph and to the Wise Men, was always the same: Do not Fear. I am with you. You are beloved. You must act as though you are – with courage, and compassion, and wisdom.
Rather than a mentality of fear, we can live into a mentality of abundance - abundant generosity, abundant joy, abundant love. When we try to control our lives based out of fear of what might happen, we can only ensure more security, more suspicion, and more fear. But when we focus on God instead of fear, and live into God’s kingdom of generosity, joy, and love, we are able to multiply that force in the world. And that is our work – the work of God and the work of Christ – to trust in God and live into the abundance that life provides, rather than focus on fear and worldly abundance. And in that, we give praise and thanks to God.
Amen and Amen.