January 3, 2020
“Politics and Religion”
No doubt you’ve been somewhere, perhaps even your own home, where it has been said that the discussion of politics and religion are forbidden subjects. Some of us can recall threats to churches of losing their tax-free status should they become involved in political activity.
Clearly, the endorsement of one candidate over another is an inappropriate use of the pulpit and the denigration of an individual is even worse. Rest assured you won’t hear any of that today, nor will you hear the endorsement of one political party over another. But what we will wrestle with is why the gospel writer of Matthew was the only one who included Herod the Great along with the Magi in the opening narrative of Jesus’ story.
The simplest thing we can say about Herod the Great is that his power came from Rome. He was a connected politician. He had the power of a king, but that power was bestowed by Rome based upon his family connections, his military support political allies, and tribute paid through taxes he collected and the properties that he confiscated. Herod could smell a good deal from a hundred miles! He loved hosting dignitaries with lavish hospitality. The architecture of his projects reflected Roman culture with one notable exception. He doubled the size of the Temple in Jerusalem, creating a wonder of the world, a portion of which still exists today, known as the wailing wall.
Because of his wealth and power, Rome determined that Herod the Great would choose his successor. As history reveals, this leads to a dysfunctional and violent family dynamic. As plots thickened, as plots will do in the presence of great power, Herod’s mental health, fueled by his hyper alertness for conspiracies, pushed him closer to the edge of madness.
When Jesus was born, Herod the Great was nearing the end of his life and experiencing poor health. One can only imagine the effect of learning the news regarding the birth of a king, let alone King of the Jews. We read in Matthew, “When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.” Let’s remember that when kings become troubled, people lose their property AND often their lives. Suffering spreads like a virus!
Last week we talked about our need for empirical data to support ideas or claims. The life of Herod the Great comes with a significant amount of archeological evidence along with the historical writing of Flavius Josephus in two of his works, Jewish War, and Jewish Antiquities.
But now we move our gaze from the writing of a known historian and the archeological digs that help us accept what we read to the writing of an unknown author, writing in the name of Matthew, who is identified as a former tax collector, who became a disciple of Jesus Christ. The writing occurs 30 to 40 years after the event. The people of The Way have kept the stories of Jesus alive and the Holy Spirit has inspired the gathering and writing of these stories so that future generations might encounter, and learn, and believe
There is a storyteller in our midst who points in the direction of the late Fred Craddock, a celebrated professor of preaching and one of the greatest biblical story tellers of the 20th Century. He would tell his listeners, “Every story I tell you is true, and some of them actually happened.”
Perhaps the writer of Matthew is providing an entry point for the readers of this gospel, particularly the Jewish reader who is struggling with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE by Rome. Think about that for a minute. A wonder-of-the-world built by the decree of Herod the Great is completely destroyed by the very source of Herod’s power. The political message is clear and lives to this very day; I can make you, and I can break you. But the story of Jesus is a departure from this political reality.
The borders of his story are expanded by the inclusion of the Magi who bring these symbolic gifts of gold, the precious metal offered as tribute to a king, frankincense, used by priests to clear the air and lift prayers into heaven, and myrrh, used in anointing the dead. The nature of these gifts would not be lost on the Jewish reader.
Herod’s paranoia prompts the flight into Egypt. Any Jew reading these words would associate Egypt with the Passover, the blood of the Pascal lamp spread over door lintels to direct the angel of death to pass over the occupants behind such a door.
And out of Egypt came Moses, receiver of Torah, a revealing of God’s will for God’s people. And after Herod the Great dies, Jesus returns from Egypt with a new interpretation of the Law of Moses.
All true! And some of it really happened.
On the threshold of this New Year, CAN you feel the Gospel of Matthew pointing beyond the politics of the day? During his trial, Jesus was sent to Herod Antipas, the product of Herod the Great and Malthace the Samaritan. He was silent before Herod, refusing to participate in a sham. Through his silence, Jesus shows us the power of non-violence combined with the strength of non-capitulation.
There are those who have entered this story. From the turmoil of 2020, the lives of John Lewis and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg come to mind, meriting our study and their place in our history. There are so many more life stories of integrity and grace. A worthy resolution would be to choose three role models and study the course of their lives. Note the places where you think they might have been influenced by the gospel stories and let those moments inform your journey in 2021.
All four of the gospel writers have provided the entry point of Holy Communion for their readers. Present in the sacrament is the gift of forgiveness, something foreign to politics. The forgiveness extended to us removes the need for revenge or settling the score. It acknowledges our brokenness while facilitating healing by removing malice. The saints that surround us reject the notion that they are righteous. They acknowledge their need for forgiveness while pointing to Christ as the source of all righteousness.
The attraction of secular power is always with us. According to the Reverend Billy Graham, the lowest day of his life was when he was lured into an anti-Semitic telephone conversation with Richard Nixon. When that tape was released to the public, some were laughing, some were crying, and some were reminded that NO ONE is immune.
We are swimming in an ocean of sound-bytes designed to capture our allegiance through our bias and prejudice. 2020 exposed a deep need for restoration and redemption. Much of 2021 will be shaped by our response to partisan politics. Pray that the Spirit finds open hearts, open minds, and willing hands in the New Year. Thanks be to God.