Does it seem strange to you that Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, entered the world as a helpless infant? What are we to make of this? John Ortberg reflects on the crucial differences between Jesus and his contemporary, King Herod, in this excerpt from Who Is This Man. -Adam Forrest
The friend of Romans and the friend of sinners
He entered the world with no dignity.
He would have been known as a mamzer, a child whose parents were not married. All languages have a word for mamzer, and all of them are ugly. His cradle was a feeding trough. His nursery mates had four legs. He was wrapped in rags. He was born in a cave, targeted for death, raised on the run.
He would die with even less dignity: convicted, beaten, bleeding, abandoned, naked, shamed. He had no status. Dignity on the level of a king is the last word you would associate with Jesus. There is a king in the story, though. Jesus was born “during the time of King Herod.”
To an ancient reader, Herod — not Jesus — would have been the picture of greatness. Born of noble birth, leader of armies, Herod was so highly regarded by the Roman Senate that they gave him the title “King of the Jews” when he was only thirty-three years old. He was so politically skilled that he held on to his throne for forty years, even persuading Caesar Augustus to retain him after he had backed Caesar’s mortal enemy, Mark Antony. He was the greatest builder of his day. “No one in Herod’s period built so extensively with projects that shed such a bright light on that world.” The massive stones of the temple he built are visible two thousand years later.
Jesus was a builder. A carpenter. He likely did construction in a town called Sepphoris for one of Herod’s sons. Nothing he built is known to endure.
In the ancient world, all sympathies would have rested with Herod. He was nearer to the gods, guardian of the Pax Romana, adviser to Caesar. The definitive biography of him is called: Herod: King of the Jews, Friend of the Romans. The two phrases are connected: if Herod were not a friend of the Romans, he would not be king of the Jews.
Jesus would be called “friend of sinners.” It was not a compliment. He would be arrested as an enemy of the Romans.
Herod ruled in a time when only the ruthless survived. He cowered before no one. He had ten or eleven wives. He suspected the ambitions of the only one he ever truly loved, so he had her executed. He also had his mother-in-law, two of his brothers-in-law, and two of his own sons by his favorite wife executed. When his old barber tried to stick up for his sons, he had his barber executed. Caesar remarked that (given the Jewish refusal to eat pork) it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son. Herod rewarded his friends and punished his enemies, the sign of a greatsouled man in his day.
Jesus, when he was a man, would be nearly as silent and passive before Herod’s successor as he was when he was a baby before Herod. Herod clung to his title to the end. While he was dying, he had a group of protestors arrested, the ringleaders burned alive, and the rest executed. Five days before his death, he had another son executed for trying to grab power prematurely. His will instructed scores of prominent Israelites be executed on the day he died so there would be weeping in Israel.
Herod was considered by Rome the most effective ruler over Israel the empire ever had. No one would bear that title “King of the Jews” again, except for a crucifixion victim impaled for a few hours one Friday afternoon.
We are used to thinking of Herod as the cardboard villain of the Christmas pageant, but he would have been considered great by many in his day, especially those whose opinion would have mattered most. How greatness came to look different to the world is part of what this story is about. No one knew it yet, but an ancient system of Dignity was about to collapse. Human dignity itself would descend from its Herod-protecting perch and go universal…
When Herod heard of Jesus
The lives of Herod and Jesus intersected when magi from the East asked where they could find the one born (notice the title) “king of the Jews.” Herod claimed to follow the religion of Israel, but it was the pagan magi who sought truth with respect and humility. There is something about this Jesus, even on his first day, that had a way of forcing people to declare where they stand.
“When King Herod heard this he was disturbed” (major understatement here), “…and all Jerusalem with him.” Now it’s clear why. Herod “was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under… Jesus’ parents would flee to Egypt.
“The Great” vs. “the child”
Meanwhile, Jesus lay helpless and unaware. Herod, who built cities and ruled armies, was called Herod the Great. No one called Jesus “the Great.” Jesus is repeatedly given a different title by Matthew: ” ‘Go and search carefully for the child’ … the place where the child was … they saw the child with his mother … ‘take the child … and escape to Egypt’ … ‘take the child … and go to the land of Israel’ … so he got up, took the child.” The title “child,” especially in that day, would be a vivid contrast with “king” or “great.” In the ancient, status-ordered world, children were at the bottom of the ladder. In both Greek and Latin, the words for children meant “not speaking’; children lacked the dignity of reason.
Plato wrote about the “mob of motley appetites pains and pleasures” one would find in children, along with slaves and women. Children were noted for fear, weakness, and helplessness. “None among all the animals is so prone to tears,” wrote Pliny the Elder. To be a child was to be dependent, defenseless, fragile, vulnerable, at risk…
The greatest in the kingdom of heaven
One day Jesus was asked the question, “Who … is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Matthew wrote, “He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them… And he said: ‘…Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’”
Jesus said it wasn’t the child’s job to become like Herod. It was Herod’s job to become like the child. Greatness comes to people who die to appearing great. No one else in the ancient world — not even the rabbis — used children as an example of conversion. Then Jesus said the kind of thing that would literally never enter the mind of another human being to say: “And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” …
The child in Bethlehem would grow up to be a friend of sinners, not a friend of Rome. He would spend his life with the ordinary and the unimpressive. He would pay deep attention to lepers and cripples, to the blind and the beggar, to prostitutes and fishermen, to women and children. He would announce the availability of a kingdom different from Herod’s, a kingdom where blessing — of full value and worth with God — was now conferred on the poor in spirit and the meek and the persecuted. People would not understand what all this meant. We still do not. But a revolution was starting — a slow, quiet movement that began at the bottom of society and would undermine the pretensions of the Herods. It was a movement that was largely underground, like a cave around Bethlehem where a dangerous baby might be born and hidden from a king.
-John Ortberg (@johnortberg)
Learn more in John Orberg’s new book Who Is This Man: Daring to Do what God Calls You to Do
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