As we come back to our daily routine from the festivities of the Nativity season that had embraced every Christian household, the Indian Orthodox Church coats herself in much sorrow for the innocent male babies slain by King Herod’s cruelty. The Church commemorates the martyrdom of the holy innocents on 27th December who were massacred by King Herod and his soldiers. The story of King Herod and the death of the holy innocents stands out grimly against the backdrop of the birth story.
King Herod was King Herod the Great, the father of the Herodian dynasty and the father of Herod Antipas, who killed John the Baptist and assisted Pontius Pilate in condemning Jesus to death. The Scriptures offer little information about King Herod except that he was the King of the Jews. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that Herod was an ambitious politician and a strong leader. He was alive when Julius Caesar was killed, and befriended Mark Antony. Herod was later summoned to Rome to receive the title “King of the Jews” and he returned to Jerusalem as their king. By the time of the birth of Jesus, the Roman Empire controlled most of the known world around the Mediterranean and was organized into smaller kingdoms. Herod, the king of Judea, was unpopular with many Jews because he was a foreigner and only part Jewish. Although the Gospel of Matthew does not tell us directly, it is likely that any news about a newborn king would not be welcomed by Herod or his followers. The mere mention of a newborn “king” would cause anxiety in most people, and especially to someone such as the unpopular Herod.
When the wise men (who had been instructed by Herod to inform him about the location of baby Jesus) went back to their countries on different route than the one they traveled to Bethlehem, Herod, in a rage had all the male children who were two years old or younger killed so that he could kill the baby Jesus. The story of Herod and the holy innocents is strikingly similar to the beginning of the Exodus story. In Exodus, Pharaoh wanted all the male babies killed because the Israelites were overpopulating Egypt. Yet, we know that Moses was miraculously saved, ironically, by Pharaoh’s daughter (Exodus 2:1-6). As we all know, Moses survived the ordeal and he later became a leader in the house of Pharaoh. He eventually led the people of Israel on their exodus journey and died just before they entered the promised land of Canaan (Deuteronomy 34).
Herod went after the baby Jesus as soon as he heard from the wise men that they saw a star in the East. The wise men refer t Jesus as a king, a title which is used again and again throughout the New Testament. In the beginning of the Gospel of John, Nathaniel says of Jesus, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49). Later in the same Gospel, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, refers to Jesus as king, although in order to mock Him (John 18:33-38).
Throughout the Scriptures, many people who have met Jesus affirm that Jesus is a king, but Jesus never referred to Himself as a king. In his narrative on the Passion of Jesus, St. Luke tells us that some from the crowd told Pilate that Jesus called Himself a king and forbade people from paying tribute to Caesar (Luke 23:1-5). This would be considered an act of rebellion, because all Roman citizens had to pay their taxes and honor Caesar as the Roman Emperor. Yet, Jesus never stirred up a rebellion against the Romans nor did He forbid people t pay their taxes. Actually, the opposite holds true; on one occasion, He told His disciples to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Matthew 22:21).
When we learn about Jesus’ teachings, we understand that Jesus never sought political authority and power. He spoke frequently about His Father’s Kingdom. His parables describing the kingdom show a very different kingdom from what people assumed. He used everyday images, such as a mustard seed, yeast, and a camel through an eye of a needle, to show that God worked in ways unknown to man. Jesus taught about the kingdom of God throughout most of His ministry. Yet, at the end of His life, it is ironic that this peaceful, loving, Jewish carpenter was sentenced to death for charges of blasphemy and treason, for supposedly calling Himself a king and rebelling against Rome. As four Gospel accounts mention that there was a sign on the cross which read “Jesus, King of the Jews”, and the Gospel of John emphasizes that this was written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew (John 19:20).
Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus’ life in the beginning of the Gospel foreshadows what is to come, since at nearly every step, there are opponents of Jesus and His ministry. Throughout the Scriptures, the Pharisees, Scribes and Jewish leaders seek to destroy Jesus and put Him to death. Likewise, one of His own disciples, Judas Iscariot, betrays Him to the authorities for few silver coins. Peter, one of His favorite disciple, denies Him three times! So, we should not be surprised that Jesus was in danger even from the beginning of His life. Yet, Jesus managed to perform many miracles and proclaim the Kingdom of God to the people, and some did hear and accept the Gospel, the same Gospel that is proclaimed to us.
When we look at our world today, we should not be surprised when people are against the name of Jesus Christ and against His ministry. We should not be surprised when we, who proclaim the name of Jesus and proclaim the Kingdom of God, are persecuted in our daily lives. We should not be surprised when we face persecutions from our own loved ones, rather we should be prepared to face such persecutions as those who follow Jesus and His Gospel are not according to the world. We should be ready to keep planting the seed of the Word of God as most of the seeds would fall on the wayside, or among the thorny bushes or on rocky paths with not much nutrition to sustain them. We should keep planting so that the seeds would fall on the good soil of the hearts of the people so that it may take root and would be watered by the Fountain of Truth. In a world struck by war, political instability, natural disasters and diseases, let us carry the light of Jesus into this world and help in bringing the peace that is brought through the presence of Jesus alone.
May the love of Jesus Christ guide us in the coming new decade.