Herod and Caesar, Then and Now

My pastor preached a great sermon yesterday morning from the Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter 2. It’s the story of the Magi, wise men who studied the heavens, finding a new star, and seeking the newborn King of the Jews. There was problem, of course. The Jews already had a king – Herod. “Herod the Great,” he was called. And he wasn’t amused at news of potential newborn rival kings.

We like to think of Herod as unusually brutal, and perhaps he was. There are all kinds of flawed rulers, governors and congresspersons who don’t resort to murdering their wives and children, as he did. Or to ordering the wholesale slaughter of baby boys in a district rumored to be harboring a new child-Messiah. But in fact, in ways subtle or brutal, kings and governors don’t get along at all well with the Messiah. To their credit, they understand the words of the apostle Paul: “The Kingdom of this world has become the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ.” As Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright puts it: “God is king, and the kingdoms of the world are thereby demoted.” And nobody wants to be demoted, especially kings.

Leon Cogniet, 1824, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France

Leon Cogniet, 1824, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France

This understanding was second nature to the early Christian church. Paul told the Corinthians that no one could affirm that “Jesus is Lord” without the Holy Spirit’s aid. Because in so doing, such a person was also affirming that Caesar is not Lord; that Mammon is not Lord; that he or she is not Lord. And each of these carries costs which can hardly be borne without the help of the Holy Spirit. Maybe it’s poverty; or humility; or injustice; or martyrdom.

How I wish for a renewal of this awareness in the church today! If Jesus is Lord, then Herod and Caesar are not Lord. And neither are progressives, or conservatives, or free marketeers, or Keynesians, or Republicans, or Democrats. Neither are oligarchs, or monarchs, or capitalists, or socialists. Neither is the Chamber of Commerce or MoveOn.org. Jesus is Lord, and the kings of this world aren’t happy about it one bit. None of them.

N.T. Wright again: “In almost every letter Paul demonstrates that Jesus is Lord, and that Caesar isn’t; that the ‘gospel’ of Jesus upstages the ‘gospel’ of Caesar; that the true salvation is achieved through Jesus, not Caesar; that the world needs God’s justice, not Roman justice; and with great irony, that the cross, a hated symbol of Roman rule, had been transformed into the life-giving symbol of God’s self-giving love.”

What have we lost in the church of our day? At least in part, it’s this: We’ve come to believe that our political and economic brands are, to a degree, endorsed by the Refugee of Bethlehem. We can choose “the package of the Right,” says Wright: “rigid social structures, hierarchy, law and order, a tough-minded work ethic and a strong view of national identity. Then there is the package of the Left: freedom and revolution, overthrowing hierarchies, blurring old lines, doing things in new ways. It is assumed that, with local variations, you are basically in one camp or the other, and that many other decisions are determined by it.”

Well then, do we argue that Christ-followers should withdraw from engagement with the power structures of our world? Hardly! What the gospel offers us, says Wright, is inaugurated eschatology: “Like the Israelites under their monarchy, chafing at its imperfections and looking for the fulfilment to come, the followers of Jesus are to live under the rulers of the world, believing them to be appointed by God but not believing that that makes them perfect or that they do not need to be reminded of their duty, however dangerous and uncomfortable a task that may be.”

In this time of the American election cycle, we can hardly escape the cacophony of Herods and Caesars demanding our allegiance to their lordship. But for some of us – for me, I hope – Jesus is Lord, and the rest are just governors, or senators, or billionaires, or the latest ideological fashion-mongers.

If Jesus is Lord, then I’m just beginning to fathom the list of all the things that are not. Caesar, Herod? You had your day, I suppose you top the list of the Demoted. But you’ve got plenty of company from our day.

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