One of the problems with the Bible is that it doesn’t really do character development. Well they are not those sort of books. This means it’s often quite hard to get any real grasp on what a person is like and what makes them tick. Instead, we have to fill in the gaps.
Herod the Great, the Herod in our gospel this morning, is a monster. That much we can tell; for what kind of person orders the slaughter of innocent babies? Herod is a nasty piece of work. It was not just these poor infants that were killed at the behest of this King. Many others were - including one of Herod’s wives and some of his own children. It has also been suggested that Herod had plotted the murder of a crowd of leading Jewish dignitaries in order to coincide with his own death – thus making sure there were many people wailing and mourning at his funeral.
The problem is that when we label someone a monster, that is all they are. We can discount them as being so beyond our comprehension, so beyond what any reasonable person might do that we see no connection with them and who we are and what we do. Herod is paranoid and wants to keep his throne. This Messiah is a threat. This is what lies behind his murderous decrees. The evil that meets the arrival of our Saviour is devastating. What this story tells us is that we need to take sin seriously.
For while I may not be guilty of murder, how do I respond when my own status and power comes under threat? How do I feel when what makes me feel settled and comfortable is challenged? Is my reaction one of loving understanding or is it, which is far more likely to be the case, one in which I get defensive, or paranoid, or angry? I must protect: myself; my privilege; my position. So, I might not have an army at my disposal like Herod, but what do I do in such situations? Do I belittle, do I tear a strip off the challenger, do I answer with hatred?
Have a think about what really gets your goat. What makes you seethe. Recall a moment when you felt like that and what you wanted to do. I bet you wouldn’t want to admit that to the person sitting next to you this morning. When I start to see Herod in this way, I begin to wonder to what lengths would I go? Of course, I would never issue the kind of orders he did but I am sure that as we chipped away at how I would answer a threat to my own throne, I would be surprised at what I would be prepared to do - especially if someone else was paying and someone else was making them pay. Are we really so different from Herod - this very human king propelled by a very human instinct?
Sin is about falling short of the mark. The mark is the example of love that Jesus showed and commanded us to have for each other. However, when we care more about ourselves, our privilege and our position than we do anyone else then we fall short, far too short. We sin. We need to be vigilant – aware when we see ourselves in such a way - for we start to become little Herods of our own. Instead, let us, like the holy family, flee away from this kind of sin. Let us always remember Christ’s instruction to love.
Christ did not call us to be doormats. There are times we must say ‘no’. There will be times we need to resist and defend. Yet, we always need to ask ourselves at such points: am I doing this for the right reasons and in the right way? Is this something of which, in all good conscience, is Christ-like? If the answer you suspect is ‘probably not’ then we need to do something about it and choose another way. It seems to be that this is much more like what Christian life is really like. We won’t always get it right but somehow we ought to look at what we have done, what we are doing, what we intend to do and offer it to God: in that we try and do right by him. Remembering that God knows us, knows what we are doing, and loves us anyway. Nevertheless, God calls us to be more, to be better, to be the best person we can be.
And if what I have said is true of us, so it is true for Herod. Our Gospel’s author, Matthew, may have written Herod off as a monster but God never does. God never stops loving him. God never stops desiring Herod would draw nearer to the person God wishes him to be, the very best Herod he can be. For then he would be truly worthy of his title: Herod the Great.