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The Madness of Kings
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
January 5, 2020
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “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. ”When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
I want to tell you the story of mysterious kings come from the east for a royal visit. It is not Matthew’s story of the Magi, but it does take place in the years just before Matthew wrote his Gospel, so it’s not unrealistic to think that Matthew is playing with echoes. I’ll tell the story, and you can decide. The story of Tiridates and Nero. In the first century, the Roman Empire was of course near the height of its political and cultural power, and for thirteen years in the middle of that century, it was ruled by a somewhat notorious young emperor named Nero. Nero’s contemporaries do not remember him fondly. They accuse him of debauchery and conduct unbecoming the office — you may have heard stories — though it may also be true that he raised taxes on the sort of people who write history books. Regardless, it is clear that Nero served the empire at the height of its power and at the height of its lust of power, which is the sort of thing that eats away at anyone.
And also there was another empire. To the east of Rome, occupying land that centers on modern-day Iran, was the Parthian Empire, a cultural and economic stronghold in its own right, and in-between the Parthians and Rome, a little sliver of a kingdom called Armenia. Armenia was the little tiny house sandwiched between skyscrapers, and neither of the skyscrapers wanted to budge. One day, the Parthians decided that they wanted Armenia to have a new king, and so the Parthian emperor installs his own brother as king of the little house between skyscrapers. The point, of course, is to gradually pull Armenia into the Parthian fold. Except that the other skyscraper doesn’t like it. Rome objects, and after a bunch of hard negotiation, and to stave off armed conflict, the empires agree that the Armenian king can be appointed by the Parthians, but only with approval from Rome itself. And so, to make sure that everybody in the empire and everybody in the world knows just how powerful he is, Nero will summon this new king all the way to Rome to appear to be approved in person. His name is Tiridates.
What happens next is all posturing. Tiridates sets off on the nine-month journey to Rome, surrounded by quite an entourage: extended family, lords and dignitaries, Roman citizens, not to mention soldiers numbering in the thousands. But Tiridates is not just a politician. He’s also a Zoroastrian priest, and so among his coterie are other sages not unlike him, kings from the east known as magi. But when they get to Rome, of course they don’t find a child wrapped in a manger. Instead, they find all of the pomp of the emperor on full display. The forum is packed and decorated with the flags and garlands of empire. Nero is seated on a throne that has been lifted above the crowd to an agreed-upon height to make him look just important enough. Tiridates has to leave his entourage behind and makes his final approach. In accordance with the prior agreement, he maintains the sword at his side, but also, in accordance with the agreement, the sword has been nailed into its sheath so that it may not be drawn. Following the script, he approaches the throne and says, “I have come to you who are my god.”
It’s all posture. And it’s all about power. The whole moment is designed to remind everybody just how powerful the Roman emperor is. Nero says, “You have done well by coming here to enjoy my presence in person. What your father has not left to you and what your brothers did not preserve for you, I do accord to you, and I make you King of Armenia, (never mind, the guy has been king for about 10 years at this point) so that you, as well as they, may know that I have the power to take away and to grant kingdoms.” Which gets Nero pretty close to “I am the alpha and the omega,” but instead he simply puts the crown on Tiridates’ head, and the crowd goes wild. This was an event. It was the event. Magi come from the east to worship the king. An event of intercultural connection. An event of crossing over ancient borders. An event that would be remembered for generations. An event that could therefore easily have found its way into the imagination of our Gospel-writer. But of course in Matthew’s hands this story could hardly be more different.
In Matthew’s hands, the Magi, of course, are not on a political errand. They have not been summoned by empire. They have come, as far as we can tell, only because with curiosity and piety, they have followed this star in anticipation of the newborn Messiah. And then when they arrive in Jerusalem, Herod is not exactly putting on a show of hospitality or political cunning. Instead, he’s a monster. In the reading that follows, as Krystal reminded us last week, his monstrousness knows no bounds. But in Matthew’s introduction, Herod is just as foolish as he is monstrous. He believes the Magi, but he cannot befriend them. He ransacks his own city in paranoia. And then when he finally does try to enlist the Magi, they see right through him and slip right through his fingers. Herod has all the same vanity and lust for power that Nero has, of course, but in Matthew’s hands, Herod just isn’t anywhere as good at it as Nero is, and at least in this text, Matthew is mocking him relentlessly.
But of course by extension, Matthew is mocking Nero just as much. After all, the Magi in this story have not come to see the empire. The Magi are not impressed by empire at all. They are not impressed by rich displays of garlands and flags or by the command of men dispatched by a paranoid fool. The Magi are not here to kiss the ring; they owe their crowns to nobody, certainly not to the whims of some tyrant from the west. They are only here for the child. To see the child. To marvel at the child. To worship the child. Consider this. In one story, the Magi from the east nails his sword into his sheath so that an emperor surrounded by the most powerful army that the world had ever seen could feel safe. In the other story. the newborn king appears as a child, a baby. Totally exposed and vulnerable. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Magi have all of the real power. They could circle back to Herod. They could take the child. They could have their way. But instead, they open their treasure chests and offer their gifts of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
The whole thing is a mockery. In Luke’s Gospel, Mary sings of the Messiah who will bring down the powerful; here’s Matthew doing it with savage imagination. You think you look like Nero, Matthew says, to all the powers of the world. You think you know the script. You think the world bends before you. You think you spin the fates of kings and queens and nations and peoples with nonchalance. You think the sun rises and sets and the moon waxes and wanes by your permission. But let me tell you what you really look like, Matthew says. Let me hold up a mirror, so that you can see yourself: Herod in his castle, the paranoid fool, driven to madness, outflanked by immigrants from the east, an embarrassment to Judea and to all the nations, and such has it always been for men who declare themselves almighty. Thus it was for Herod, Matthew says, thus it is for Nero, Matthew says, thus it will be for vainglorious men of every time and place who lust for power. Real power needs no such constant reminding of how powerful it is. Real power can lie peaceably in the manger. Real power can bend a knee in the presence of the divine. Real power can yield itself to the whims of stars.
After all, it’s the star that runs this story. The Magi journey for days and weeks end over end, but the star stays fixed over Bethlehem. Herod rants and raves and unspools in front of all Jerusalem, and the star stays fixed over Bethlehem. While the king collapses in real time and while the people get whipped into a frenzy and while fear and panic run rampant through the streets, the star stays fixed. Quiet. Unmoving. Unchanging. And persistent. The powerful will come unglued. The powerful will always come unglued, but the star stays fixed. The crowd will turn, the crowd always turns, but the star stays fixed. And you know the way. You know the way to the manger. You know the way to the newborn savior. You know the way of peace. You know the way of wonder. You know the way of forgiveness. You know the way of mercy. You know the way of love. You know that star fixed way, through the reach of empires, across the ancient grave-littered borders, alongside the shadows of vast armies, through the chaos of the churning city, under the noses of the most powerful. You know the way. The star is the way. The light is the way. The way to Bethlehem.
And if you forget, the star stays resolutely fixed. A.J. Muste was ordained as a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church in the first half of the twentieth century, and went on to lead a life formed by peacemaking, primarily marked by his leadership during anti-war responses to America’s involvement in Vietnam. One of Muste’s habits, during Vietnam, was to hold his own solo candlelight vigils on the street facing the White House, a way of marking his opposition to America’s military policies. One night, a reporter asked him, “Do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night in front of the White House with a candle?” A.J. Muste replied, “Oh I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.”
You know the way. And the darkness has not overcome it. Thanks be to God.
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