“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
If you are Herod, who is quite literally the king of the Jews as appointed by the Roman Empire in Matthew’s story, something that will ruin your day is foreign emissaries showing up in your city asking if they can pay homage to a child who was just born king of the Jews.
Matthew does not tease this episode out for us very much, so we can only imagine the awkwardness of the moment.
“Oh, well, you see, I am king of the Jews.”
“Of course you are, for now, but we’re talking about the next king. The one who was just born. May we see him? We’ve got loads of frankincense.”
And of course they showed up in Jerusalem because Jerusalem is the city of the king. It’s where Herod hangs his hat, so it is easily the most natural place to come see the new, baby king.
Already, Matthew begins to define the terms of the conflict. On the one hand, we have Herod. Herod is an Idumean – an Edomite. He only has a certain amount of Jewish blood in his veins, and his family are actually converts to Judaism. He enjoys his position not from lineage or approbation of the Jews but by the Roman Senate declaring him king of Judea. From what we know from archaeological findings, he brings Italian foods, wines, architecture, and social practices into the region, and the wealthy and powerful of Jerusalem modify their own houses and larders accordingly – especially the Sanhedrin.
Herod was not without his generosities – many building projects including expanding the Second Temple were done by him, some of which you can still visit today. But even as he improved Caesarea’s harbor, he was building secret fortresses for himself and his family and sending large bribes and gifts to the Romans who kept him in power.
To fund all this were his infamous taxes – taxes crippling enough that it earned him a revolt or two (and the public’s hatred of tax collectors that we enjoy to this day). That, and little stunts like putting the Roman eagle over the Temple door.
Whatever the historical Herod’s merits or demerits were, the Herod of Matthew’s Gospel represents exactly the structure Jesus will topple. Outwardly, he appears somewhat Jewish, and even throws them a nice building or two, but his heart, his life, and his possessions are committed to keeping the Empire going so that he can retain his wealth, position, and power. He is Rome’s creature. And he is not above using financial and military oppression to keep things just the way he likes them.
On the other side, we have Jesus, the new king of the Jews. This king is actually Jewish, from the line of David, and apparently conceived by Israel’s God Himself. This king comes from a little town, born in a basement in which traveler’s kept their animals. He has none of the Empire’s wealth and none of their support. His supporters are fishermen, reformed tax collectors, prostitutes looking for a better world, and whatever the heck Nathaniel did all day. What he does have is an office, a mission, the sanction of YHVH, and the power of the Spirit.
The Herod of Matthew 2 is not going to last very long into the gospel story, but it’s still not an exaggeration to say that Matthew’s story will be the clash between these two powers. On the one hand, the rich and powerful “Jews” who keep Israel under their thumb, and on the other hand is the king in exile returned to claim his throne, topple the powers that be, and restore righteousness and justice to Israel, putting them back on top.
For the past few posts, I have tried to emphasize the political, Israel-centric nature of Matthew’s story for a wide number of reasons, not the least of which being that such is the story Matthew is telling. This is a story about sand, dirt, spit, and blood. It’s about money, buildings, and armies. It’s about ships, bread, wine, secret meetings, covert propaganda, and capital punishment for rebellion. It’s about who is in power and what the kingdom looks like under their reign.
There is a danger that the concretely historical nature of Matthew’s story may make it feel distant from our world, but I would argue that very nature of it is exactly what makes it relevant.
Because, you see, Jesus is still the king – not just of Israel, but all the nations. And faithful Israel still exists – not as a small group of humble Jerusalem citizens, but as Jews and Gentiles the world over who share Abraham’s faith. And the kingdom continues to roll out, taking the new creation blessings with it, not just to Judea, not just to the Roman Empire as the biblical authors knew it, but to the entirety of creation.
And let me tell you something – you might miss out on the vast majority of what it means to be a Christian if all you get exposed to is the spiritual transformation aspect. Being the people of God in the world today is about spit, blood, food, money, armies, sacrifice, homes, cities, and rulers. It is still about revolution; not the kind that comes by the sword of steel, but the sword of the Spirit. There is nothing on the face of the earth that gets segmented away from the reign of God in Jesus Christ, and there is nothing that will not be radically transformed or banished by the work of new creation. This is what being a Christian is supposed to look like. This is what you signed up for.
It is because Jesus was born king of the Jews that he is your king, today, and such a title means something. It means everything.
- What are the different things that define a “kingdom,” and how are those present for the early followers of Jesus? How are they present, today?
- If we are a kingdom, what implications does that have for how we interact with the other “kingdoms” of our day? Should we be looking for allies among them or should we be leery of such a thing?
- Before God’s people were a kingdom, they were a new creation. What does a new creation look like, and how do we bring that to the nations as well? Is it purely something we wait for in the future?