“There’s a Little Herod in All of Us:
What the Epiphany Story Might Teach Us About An Election Cycle.”
Let’s start with a riddle: What do you get when you have two people with the same title, living in the same place at the same time?
We all know the Epiphany story. The Magi, the wise men, whatever you choose to call them, make their appearance in the nativity narrative. You might think that I would choose to talk about these guys – if indeed they were men, the gifts they brought, the significance of those gifts and what it means to us. And naturally the story begs the question – what gifts would you bring? Yet there’s another piece of the story that we don’t often hear.
You may not know that a few days after the wise men left, the three wise women arrived bearing gifts. One brought a pile of clean diapers, another formula and another a week’s worth of casseroles. And what gifts do you bring?
But that’s not what I want to discuss. Think of these wise folks as having only walk on parts in the story.
At the heart of the story is our riddle… What do you get when you have two people in this case – Herod and Jesus – with the same title, KING – living in the same place at the same time?
Or – what do you get when multiple political candidates, in the same place at the same time during an election season all trying to get your attention?
Enter wise folk not with diapers, gold, formula, frankincense, myrrh, or casseroles but asking: “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?” Put yourself is Herod’s place – . Gee, do you think Herod felt threatened…maybe just a little.
Or – asking for your vote.
That’s certainly how Herod thought – there’s only one mountain and one king of that mountain and that’s me. And sometimes that’s the way we think. But that’s not how Jesus thinks. Gee, do you think there’s a little Herod in all of us?
Herod thinks like us: one mountain, one king. He acts on that conviction as soon as he hears that there is another person in his realm with his title. But in this case, of course, Herod is wrong. The “newborn” King of the Jews is no threat to Herod…. Rather an opportunity. But that’s true only if Herod is the sort of King – the Kings of the Jews is supposed to be which of course Herod is not.
When he finds out that the Magi bypassed Jerusalem on their way back home, Herod smells treachery, thinks he’s threatened, and slaughters his own citizens in his mad conviction that he can thereby preserve his title and turf. Two people with the same title – KING…one is threatened and the other not. One sees opportunity – the other demise.
When have you felt threatened and missed opportunities as a result? What opportunities are missed by political candidates when they feel threatened by the competition? What are we missing out on?
Right about now you should be asking yourself – “WHY.” Why feel so threatened?
The job’s the same. Just the flock is different. Both job descriptions are the same: when push comes to shove, you protect the sheep even if it costs you your own life. It’s not the other way round: that the sheep die so that you can stay alive.
The job of the King of the Jews is to elevate everybody to royalty, so that when the job is finally finished everybody is a somebody. There are no nobodies left. Kingship is about opportunities.
Herod was wrong about his kingship. He operated from a misguided notion that says: it’s top dog and underdog in the real world, and if I’m on top, you are going to stay under. And if you object, then you’ll soon be six feet under. But, of course, Herod is wrong, dead wrong.
Sure you can practice radical exclusion of everybody and everything to maintain your title and turf. But when you do that, you are inviting the God who appoints kings and queens to play the same game with you. And God does do just that— excludes excluders.
And like Herod, who among us does not exclude others, even dear and close others when we feel threatened? How often do you really enjoy having someone from down there come up to share your status, your prestige, your position, your pay scale? Oh, those people…
In the lexicon of American slang is the term “put down.” That’s an expression you’d expect coming out of Herod’s mouth. And who among us doesn’t do it—and get it done to us in return? Even those of us who think of ourselves at the bottom of the totem pole have a little Herod within us to claim our higher rank over those who are not as humble, or as kind, or as long-suffering as we are.
For Herod it’s about getting ahead and staying on top by whatever means it takes. It means staying as far up the totem pole as we’ve gotten. But the God who really is king says: I exclude excluders, and that means you, me and all of us when we attempt to leave out even one of the least of them.
How Jesus does this is what the rest of Matthew’s Gospel is all about.
The Magi story in the gospel of Matthew is really his overture to the rest of the symphony. For Jesus too the temptation throughout Matthew is to use his authority in Herodian fashion, save his own skin and let others pay the price, let sinners do their own dying, pay the price for their own Herodian practice. But Jesus wants it otherwise. His calling is not to lord it over the weak and the helpless, folks like us, just plain sinners. He exercises his authority under, not over, the weak and heavy laden, holding them up, taking the flak that they have coming to them. Remember Jesus’ classic line: “I have come not to be served, but to serve, and to give my life a ransom for many.”
So, what do you get when you have two people with the same title, living in the same place at the same time?
We all share the same title, at the same time in the same place. That’s the great gift of the Incarnation. We are equal partners in God’s kingdom. Kings and Queens we are – whether we realize it or not – at least in God’s eyes.
We all come bearing gifts – choose wisely. The opportunity to make everyone a “someone” is an opportunity not to be missed.
Adapted from a homily delivered January 3, 2016 ~.
Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Sierra Madre, CA.