Evil Tries to Snuff Out the Light

Evil Tries to Snuff Out the Light

The story of the Wisemen, Persian stargazers showing up at the birth of Jesus served several purposes.  First, Matthew’s narrative matched the claims of heavenly events associated with the career of Augustus Caesar.  The Roman historian Suetonius had claimed a special star appeared at the time of the birth of Augustus.  Matthew provides us with a special star marking the birth of Jesus.  Also in claiming a visit from Magi from Persia, Matthew was going Suetonius one better.  Augustus merely had a few Roman astrologers claim an auspicious horoscope for Octavian, but the whole world recognized the authority of the Persian star gazers.  Since the people of the First Century believed that the stars controlled human destiny, an auspicious heavenly event was important to mark the birth of every great leader.

The story of the Wisemen also provided Matthew with links to at least three “prophecies” in the Hebrew Scriptures.  “Micah 5: 2  But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. “

“Isaiah 60:1  Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2  For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.  3  And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.  And finally, Numbers 24:17  I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel. . . .  Since Matthew was writing for a primarily Jewish audience, he wanted to demonstrate at every turn that Jesus was the Messianic fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The star the Wisemen followed in search of the Holy Child was symbolic of God’s light breaking into the night of the world.  A darkness most aptly represented by the evil King Herod.  We do not know if the story of the Magi is factual, but historical facts support the characterization of the evil Herod, who was capable of ordering the slaughter of several dozen peasant children in his effort to hold on to his throne.

Herod is a study in contradictions.  He was a great builder.  He constructed massive public works projects:  the City of Caesarea, the Great Synagogue Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron, the great aqueducts of Jerusalem and Caesarea, the great Rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, the Winter Palace in Jericho, the fortress of Herodiom, the fortress of Masada. To support all of his building projects Herod taxed his subjects heavily on top of the taxes he had to levy to send to Rome.  Herod was also a murderous butcher maintaining his power and control by killing countless individuals including his brother-in-law, his wife, his mother-in-law, three sons and a multitude of Israel’s finest citizens, not to mention countless peasants, who occasionally revolted against his taxes and his rule, since most of his Jewish subjects did not consider him to be a Jew.  According to the historian Josephus Herod was afraid when he died his subjects would celebrate rather than mourning his passing.  So, as he lay dying Herod ordered the arrest of several dozen members of the most prominent families in the land with orders that when he expired, these hostages should be executed to ensure that Israel would mourn, when he died.  Herod was crazy.  But the Romans didn’t care as long as he kept order and sent in his share of the taxes, a harsh example of the excesses of Roman Rule.

The introduction of Herod into the Christmas Story helps to frame the story of Jesus in relationship to the oppression of the Roman Empire.  Jesus was a carpenter.  He was part of the landless peasantry, an impoverished underclass that had been pushed into subsistence having to depend on the sale of their increasingly devalued labor.  In the commercialized agricultural economy of the Roman World large estates were accumulated by a small wealthy landed aristocracy.  The Temple in Jerusalem was part of the movement to push peasants off the land and consolidate large estates.  The records of land debt were kept in the Temple and the Scribes were actively involved with the money changers in the foreclosure movement, at the same time the Priests were failing to honor the clear scriptural and legal principal of the “jubilee.”  The jubilee was part of the Law of Moses providing for the periodic cancelation of debts, the freeing of slaves, and the return of land to the original owners.  No wonder Jesus was in conflict with the Temple authorities, and they were implicated in his death.  Of course we should note that the Roman authorities were only too willing to carry out the execution of Jesus, since he posed a very clear threat to their rule, and the administration of the Temple authorities, who were collaborating with the Romans.  In the end the divine child who escaped the clutches of Herod was arrested by the Temple authorities and executed by Rome.

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Since the dawn of civilization violence and power have been used and abused by leaders to exploit the rest of their societies.  To appropriate for the leadership of the social group the most and the best of the goods produced by the economy of the whole.

Jesus was advocating for a different kind of leadership he called the Common Wealth of God.  The new organizing principle of Jesus’ call for social justice was love – love and sharing – to be contrasted with violence and selfishness.

Of course politics and the abuses of power have been around for hundreds, thousands of years.  Going back to ancient Greece Plato said, “Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”  And Aesop the creator of the fables of Ancient Greece said, “We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.”  Modern democracies seem to suffer from similar problems of collective idiocy and corporate perfidy.  As Mark Twain said a little over one-hundred years ago, “There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.  Why we have the best congress money can buy.  Friends, suppose you were an idiot.  And suppose you were a member of Congress.  But then I repeat myself.”

Twain could have been writing the script for the Colbert Report or Jon Stewart’s the Daily Show.  Certainly we are better off than the poor people of North Korea or Syria.  But even in relatively enlightened democracies there is a tendency for people to seek leadership for self-interested reasons.  For instance, here in the United States 50% of the members of Congress are millionaires.  The average net worth of people in Congress in 2010 was two and half million dollars, and most members of the House and Senate become wealthier after going to Washington than before.  Members of Congress cannot be prosecuted for insider trading.  Even our own Alabama Congressman Spencer Bachus went into the stock market and sold short just before the crash of 2008, after he had been briefed in a closed hearing as a member of the House Financial Services Committee by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and then – Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, about the approaching financial melt-down.   Maybe we are expecting too much for people in leadership not to use privileged information for their own financial gain.

So part of the problem of the evil that seeks to snuff out the light is the tendency in all cultures and all forms of government for people to use leadership for their own advantage.   While some people seek leadership for their own material gain, perhaps even more problematic are the people who seek leadership because they are obsessed with power – they worship power and the ability to govern or manipulate other people.  Sometimes the longing for leadership comes from a need to be the center of attention, or a desire for self-esteem.  Maybe some of us are simply fascinated with power in thrall to power.  We follow the news, and look for the latest reporting on the campaign trail and the machinations of Congress – it might be entertaining if the fates of so many people didn’t hang in the balance.

Politics as entertainment reminds me of a true story.  When we lived in Galesburg, Illinois, one of the local radio stations broadcast the City Council meetings.  That was back in the days of powerful A.M. transmitters that could be picked up in Canada and down into Mexico.  Someone from Galesburg was crossing the border into Canada, and that was also in the day when all you had to do was show a driver’s license and tell the border guards where you came from.  And when this person said they were from Galesburg, the border guard laughed and asked where they were really from.  When the people insisted they were from Galesburg, Illinois the border guards all gathered round, because they had been listening to the City Council meetings on the radio, and thought that the broadcast meetings were a comedy show about a fictitious town.

Jesus tried to break through all of our unhealthy obsessions with politics and power by calling people into leadership in the Commonwealth of God in order to serve – if you would be a leader, you must become the servant of all.  If you would be first, you must be last.  To find your place in the Commonwealth of God you must first be willing to become like a child, with no status, no power, or authority.   Only then can we embrace humility and become filled with the Holy Spirit, rather than the spirit of self.

Perhaps the shakers got it right with their hymn “Simple Gifts.”

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,

‘tis the gift to come down where you ought to be.

And when we come down in the place just right,

‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

to bow and to bend we will not be ashamed.

To turn, turn will be our delight,

‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.

And when we come down in the place just right,

‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

to bow and to bend we will not be ashamed.

To turn, turn will be our delight,

‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.

Jesus said to us, “you are the light of the world.”  May each one of us embrace the way of Jesus spread the light, and come round right.


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