Every story, particularly those that center on the resolution of conflict (personal, social, international), needs a good villain. Villains provide not only a foil for the hero, but depth to the story and grist for the hero’s emotional mill. In many cases, the villain is the mirror image of the hero; as with Batman and the Joker. Both hide behind masks to conceal the tortured souls which motivate them to achieve power; albeit in different ways. The British novelist Ian Fleming created some of the most notable villains in 20th century literature. James Bond would be nothing without the evil forces which defined him. Bond, who was ethically conflicted and morally ambiguous on the best of days, was a hero by default, good because the others who surrounded him so diabolical. Perhaps the greatest literary villain of the past century and a half is Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. No two characters were more evenly matched in wit, skill, and intellect than two men. Like Bond, Holmes was defined by his struggle with Moriarty. Sherlock Holmes’ identity was built around the inverted parts of himself which he saw in his enemy, the professor. When good and evil join in a dualistic struggle to achieve moral supremacy, readers are more engaged and stories come to life in new ways.
Make no doubt about it, Herod is a villain. He is our villain this week. Far from being the caricatured creation of Christmas plays, Herod is someone we must meet before we (interloping guests with seemingly no idea of what to get a baby) get to find Jesus. I’m hoping to take him seriously because he takes Jesus seriously. For us today, Herod is much more than a man on a puppet throne in Roman occupied Palestine. He is system, a way thinking and looking at the world through the lowest common moral denominator. Herod realizes that both he and Jesus cannot occupy the same physical space.
Like all good villains, Herod has an outstanding intelligence network. He not only employs analysts but he has human intelligence assets on the ground. He is actively searching for the birthplace of the baby mentioned in the Old Testament prophecies cited by his analysts. Obviously, he trusts his team to a point. Herod knows that knowledge is power. Yet, he needs to be able to act on that knowledge with the appropriate means. When we meet Herod, his ability to act has been stalled. The team of analysts has reached the limits of their ability to interpret the data at hand. Like America consulting Cuba in a delicate policy matter; those who come to Herod’s aid will be from beyond his culture, country, and tradition. With Herod, there is only emotional manipulation to make us believe that compromise and coexistence possible. This is what he tries to tell to the Magi. This is what the Herod systems of today are attempting to say to us.
The wise men function on so many levels. Outstanding research has been done to explore the roots of the Zoroastrian astrological tradition and the possible background of these “kings”. Most of the meat on the wise men story was invented during the Middle Ages. What we believe to be true or factual about Matthew 2’s material was created by commentators a thousand years after the event. It’s a good story, someone thought, why don’t we create some names and back stories for these guys?
At the most basic level, we believe them to be holy men from Persia. They are not Jewish. They do not speak Aramaic or Hebrew, most likely. Mathematics and spirituality were probably their primary areas of interest. The bottom line is they were foreign, important, smart, different, wanted to know more about the new reality Jesus represented. Clearly, the Hebrew concept of “messiah” or anointed king isn’t completely foreign to them. They understand kingship. However, no one fully comprehends what Jesus is going to mean by the word. Even Mary, who’s heard from angels and wise persons about what her son represents, is probably not in a place to grasp the message. To be honest, it’s a message we’ve been struggling with for 2000 years.
The wise men come on the scene and they offer us with a choice. This is a choice which breaks into two questions that we face today. How much are we willing to buy into a particular system, story, or narrative of power? Which story, system, or idea of power are we going to embrace? Here are the options: Herod’s or Jesus’. There are many (such as Herod) who conflate the ability to dominate the world around with also being the sole arbiter of religious, political, or social truth. If you have power, money, weapons, the police, a military, or intelligence then you get to decide what’s true. People like Herod manufacture lies and through their power, force others to see them as truth. Herod, like all people in power, can also manufacture consent. He creates conditions (by manipulating the truth) so that people will do things against their own best interest. By acquiescing to the notion that power is truth and truth is power, we are complicit in the actions of King Herod.
Herod wants the wise men to see him as an honest broker, someone who only seeks truth. He needs the wise men to believe that his intentions for this child are honorable. As the “elite” of one culture meeting with representative elites from another country (Persia); they would understand the ability to dominate others and remain in power is a truth (in and of itself) which is rarely questioned. Herod wants them to believe this no matter what the outcome of their search reveals. Even if their search leads to what we call “genocide”, it must be ok; because power equals truth. Isn’t that they way the world works?
What the wise men don’t realize is that God is going to break their identification with that way of thinking. You don’t find meaning in your life by handing over control of your life to someone else. We don’t discover meaning and purpose in life by accepting the conventional wisdom of the world from someone like King Herod. Until God breaks the connection between what they see in Bethlehem and having faith in the reality that power represents truth, their lives will not change. When the break occurs, after encountering Jesus, they see that truth is a defenseless child without an army, money, or an intelligence network.
Now, that they have encountered Jesus and the identification with truth and power is broken, the Wise Men realize their assumptions about Herod were wrong. If this story teaches us anything, unquestioned assumptions are the real source of Herod’s power. If we don’t question the assumptions we think are sacred, power can and will manipulate us to do evil things. Questioning assumptions saves lives. It could be something simple as fact checking or looking up a story you’re about to repost on a social media site. So many of the things I see posted on Facebook as Christian anecdotes which are presented as true are actually urban legends. A simple visit to Snopes.com will reveal the truth. While these stories may be interesting parables and make a moral point, they are not true. We present them as true. Aren’t their enough factual stories about what God is doing that we shouldn’t have to make up lies in order to convince people of the truth of Christianity? I would think so. Are we going to question the assumptions we’ve been given or keep spreading ones of our own? I would hope the former and not the latter.