Tears for a Tyrant
According to ancient texts collected by Macrobius, when Augustus Caesar heard that Herod, who was called “king of the Jews,” included his own son in a slaughter of all boys under the age of two in Syria, Augustus joked, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”
Whether Herod the Great kept Kosher is unknown (and doubtful), but the point is pointedly made. Herod’s paranoia, together with his megalomania, made him utterly ruthless. When we meet Herod in the birth story of Jesus, as we remember every Christmas, it is as the author of the cruel “slaughter of the innocents,” that causes Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt.
“Rachel weeps,” St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us, “and she will not be comforted.” The tears shed over the death of so many innocent babies, slain at the order to a tyrant are normal and right. But recently I have wondered who wept for the baby, the child, the youngster who grew into the tyrant?
I hope my meaning is clear. I am not excusing in any sense the cruelty of Herod the Great by bringing attention to his upbringing. History’s judgement should fall upon Herod’s head. But is there a judgement that looks back, and back, and back still further, to weep for those whose suffering causes so much suffering, a judgement that seeks not merely to punish but to restore and reclaim that which is broken? And if nowhere else in this broken world this judgement of pure grace is possible, should it not be possible in the heart of Christ’s Church?
Fred Lyon is reading a new book on the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. In an email he sent this week, he summarizes the first chapter of the book. Fred writes: “Understanding what it means to be a Christian is a lifelong quest with constant doubts and divergent resolutions. [The quest to become Christian] is an individual journey well worth taking though those who comfortably and confidently think they have it all figured out are mistaken.”
His comments helped me realize something I often forget. Christianity is not a tribe or a club or a team. It is as much as anything an aspiration which we try to live out, with more or less success.
Jesus of Nazareth is, as Kierkegaard once said in a prayer, someone we are called not just to admire but to follow. And, as I observe in reading the memoirs of Jesus’ followers (the Gospels), the only folks Jesus seemed to lose patience with were the self-appointed judges. And, everyone, including even them, gets forgiven.
I have a sneaking suspicion that when we forgive, we have a chance to understand and even to weep for those who are most unforgiving.
Herod and his ilk, the power-obsessed power-brokers in every age of this world, should not be welcomed as benefactors, but as supplicants. This I believe, although there are Christian congregations enough that will rush to comfort the cruel in the hopes that they will receive scraps and crumbs that fall from tyrants’ tables. And if we welcome tyrants as supplicants, we must also realize that part of what makes them to need redemption is their resistance to it. But, of course, that’s true for all of us.
I also suspect that when at last we are in God’s presence we will realize that many of the things we thought most admirable in ourselves turn out to be filthy sins, and some of the things we overlooked in ourselves as inconsequential will turn out to be our genuine virtues.
This is why Jesus repents for us. We don’t even know how or from what to repent.
There is a judgement that is grace that is harder to face than any mere indulgence of a church hoping for tainted benefits from a cruel ruler. That judgement does not fail to confront the reality of sin and the consequences of sin and the fruit of sin. But it does all of this in the name of the scandal of the cross on which sinless innocence paid with its life for the cruelty of humanity, and rose again in love to forgive.
And if we find ourselves bound (as I believe we are) to leave redemption in the hands of the God in whose presence the burning fire of love will consume all that is not love in all humanity, then we can weep. We can weep for, and stand with, and do all we can to help those whom every Herod injures. But we can weep for Herod too.
We shall pray for and we must act on behalf of all the most vulnerable whose lives hang by a thread, but also we shall pray for the tyrant who teases the web by which the suffering hang. For our God is a living God. God is love.