There is a saying that you should try to be yourself because everybody else is already taken… there really is no choice except to just be who you are. Herod never learned that, and that is why he was afraid of Jesus, of his sons, a wife, the rabbis, and probably his own shadow.
Think about it, why would the King of the Jews, Herod the Great, have anything to fear? He was fully supported by his Roman patrons, he had built forts, a massive sea port, and a new temple complex; all with certain Hellenistic features to please his Roman bosses, yet all done according to Jewish law to please his subjects. He did everything right, always supporting the winners and denouncing the losers. He had nothing to fear.
Of all his building projects, the temple he built for the Jews was one of his crowning achievements. Sensitive to Jewish law, Herod employed priests to do the construction. He spared no expense in materials, creating a scene in which carrera marble and blue hued tapestries conspired to depict “the whole vista of the heavens.”* . Even the Talmud remarks that “He who has not seen Herod’s building, has never in his life seen a truly grand building.” (Talmud-Bava Basra)
This story we read today tells of three wise men coming to Herod to ask about the new king of the Jews. It happened near the end of Herod’s reign when he should have been enjoying the fruits of his long and successful reign. This news from the wise men, though, frightened him.
While there may not have been anything in his current reality to frighten Herod, there were some black dogs of insecurity nipping at his heals. Herod had been raised as a Jew by his convert father, but as the son of an Idumaean father and an Arabian mother his Jewish credentials were pretty thin. He did quite a lot towards reaching out to the Jews, but he also killed a lot of them, and they never accepted him as a Jew, much less as king.
The Bible says that Herod was afraid, but it doesn’t tell us exactly what he was afraid of. I have assumed that he was afraid that the baby king would take his crown. I might be wrong, though. What if he was really afraid that he wasn’t a real Jew? In that case the birth of a real Jewish king — a descendant of David, no less — might awaken in Herod the long-forgotten reality that he was just an Idumaean from a convert family, that his mother was not a Jew at all, and that he wasn’t either. Despite having done everything right, Herod couldn’t change who he was.
Some of us have the same problem. We might like to change who we are; Or, more probably, we might like to change the things we have done. What we do, after all, is a big part of what makes us who we are. There is a pattern in Herod’s life of doing something bad, and then building something magnificent. He does it several times. What if, in the twilight of his reign, it started to seem like his achievements didn’t outweigh his less-noble deeds? Wouldn’t that wear thin the veneer of a great Jewish King and expose the faker underneath the sheen of the crown?
I think that Herod’s real fear — and the fear that most of us have — is a fear of being found out, of being known.
But, there’s good news. You are not Herod. You don’t have to be controlled by your insecurities and fears. Jesus showed us that in the new world order it doesn’t matter who your parents are, or even how many big things you build. Even those of us who, like Herod, may have done a bad deed or two, can be secure in our royal heritage; Jesus has established a new kingdom, with new criteria for what constitutes royalty.
Being on the winning side of history means laying aside all claims of status and position. from now on, blessings will not come from your biological father, they come to anyone who is poor, or who mourns, is meek, merciful, or pure. Blessings are for those who are hungry for righteousness, and who make peace. **
Love is the governing principle in the new world order, not fear.
Think about your own life. Have you been motivated more by love or by fear?
As we dip our toes in the shallow end of 2016, can you imagine what it would be like to be known for who you really are? What if your authentic self were loved and affirmed? Poor Herod probably never knew that he was loved for who he was. That is why he expended so much energy being someone else.
Think of any other fears you’d like to let go of this year. How can your confidence in the love of God help you to move out of the kingdom of fear and into the kingdom of love. For God is love.
Linda McMillan lives in Shanghai, China.
Image : The Eight Beatitudes. Folio from Walters manuscript W.171 (15th century) Public Domain
* Josephus was a first century historian and Herod’s chief biographer. He made the statement about the temple in The Jewish War.
**From The Beatitudes found in the Christian Bible, New Testament: Matthew 5 and Luke 6