Epiphany and Herod's ruthless pursuit of Jesus Christ

We all know the story.

Wise men come from the east, following a star to Jerusalem. They tell King Herod they’re looking for the “king of the Jews.”

Like the rest of Jerusalem, Herod is troubled, not thrilled, by the news. To Herod, another king must be a rival for his throne. He knows how to handle rivals.

Herod sends the magi to Bethlehem, David’s city and the birthplace of the Messiah. He tells them to report back, enlisting them as unwitting spies.

The cross was the most radical political act of all. Jesus resisted Jewish rebellion and Roman brutality not by killing but by being killed.

When they trick Herod and return home by a different route, Herod sends thugs to Bethlehem to slaughter every male infant and toddler.

Herod reasons, “If you have to sacrifice innocent children to protect your throne, so be it. That’s how the world works.”

It’s another Passover, but upside down. Herod, the “king of the Jews,” acts like Pharaoh, slaughtering Jewish babies.

There’s lamentation in Bethlehem as there was when the angel of death killed Egypt’s firstborn sons. But now Jewish women mourn.

All that blood, yet Herod fails anyway. An angel warns Joseph and he escapes the pogrom with Mary and Jesus. They find refuge – in Egypt of all places!

This is the topsy-turvy world Jesus is born into. Israel has turned into Egypt, while Egypt has become a safe haven for the Jewish savior.

Wise men are part of every Christmas crèche and Sunday School pageant. It’s the event that Christians commemorate every January 6, Epiphany, the “manifestation” of Christ.

We know the story, but we may miss the point.

Many Christians think that Herod’s ruthlessness is based on a misunderstanding. Jesus poses no political threat, they say. Didn’t He say, “My kingdom is not of this world”?

Jesus didn’t play politics by Herod’s rules. He changed the rules. He inspired new political hopes and new forms of political action.

That’s a misreading of Jesus’ mission. In fact, Herod had a better grasp of Christmas than many Christians. Herod was right: Jesus is a political threat.

We have a hard time seeing this. Modern Christians spiritualize Christianity. But a large chunk of the Bible is political history and political prophecy, which inspire political hopes.

God’s promises lay out what God will do in history on earth among the nations. They are political promises.

We hear them every time we listen to Handel’s Messiah.

“Unto us a Child is born . . . and the government shall be upon his shoulder.”

The Lord will set a king on Zion who “shall dash [nations] in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

“The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever.”

Mary sang about it. The birth of her son would bring the proud down from their thrones and raise the humble and fill the hungry.

We may not hear these as political promises, but they obviously are.

Everyone in Herod’s Palestine understood this. This is one of the reasons first-century Palestine saw nearly as much turmoil as today’s Middle East.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, Rome had ruled Judea for several decades. First-century Jews were divided about how to respond.

Some, like the Jewish convert Herod, prospered from the Roman occupation. But many resented Rome’s presence, which, they thought, defiled the holy land.

They hoped that God would expel the Romans, restore temple worship, and raise Israel to ancient greatness.

We see Pharisees, for instance, as people obsessed with arcane purity rules. Actually, they were political activists. If they lived strictly by Torah, they hoped, God would rescue them.

They didn’t just hope. They agitated. Some Pharisees were fanatical freedom fighters. Riots, terrorism, and symbolic demonstrations were common. So were Roman shows of force.

Jew couldn’t be apolitical in this highly charged world. Keeping peace with Rome was as much a political stance as plotting revolution. Peacemakers were liable to be seen as traitors.

In particular, Jesus didn’t even try to avoid politics. He preached incessantly about God’s “kingdom,” and he told Pilate he was born to be a king.

When he said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” he meant that it doesn’t come from earth. His kingdom challenges earthly politics because it comes from heaven.

Even the word “gospel” has political connotations. It refers to the announcement of a military victory. As N. T. Wright has put it, Jesus’ proclaimed the “victory of God.”

Jesus didn’t teach his disciples to withdraw from the rough and tumble of Jewish-Roman or Jewish-Jewish conflict. He taught them a different politics.

He had ferocious battles with Pharisees. The Pharisees weren’t wrong to believe that God made political promises to Israel. They simply practiced the wrong politics.

Jesus taught his disciples to turn the other cheek rather than take vengeance. He instructed them to carry a Roman soldier’s luggage a second mile.

He emphasized what he called the “weighty” things of the law – mercy, justice, and truth. He taught his disciples to overcome evil by doing good, even to their enemies.

The cross was the most radical political act of all. Jesus resisted Jewish rebellion and Roman brutality not by killing but by being killed.

Herod was right, but only partly right. He recognized that another “king of the Jews” was a threat to his throne. He didn’t realize how deep the threat was.

Jesus didn’t play politics by Herod’s rules. He changed the rules.

He inspired new political hopes and new forms of political action. He taught a politics of truthful witness, justice, and mercy, rather than one of fear, violence, and vengeance.

As Wright puts it, Jesus preached a revolutionary way of being revolutionary. That’s the new politics manifested at Epiphany. Nothing is more threatening to the Herods of the world.

Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Ala., and serves as teacher at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. He also is the author of "The End of Protestantism." He blogs at www.Patheos.com/blogs/leithart/.