At the time of the birth of Christ, the Romans maintained control over the land of Israel by supporting a local government. This government was headed by a shrewd and ruthless king, Herod the Great. In 6 BC, Herod had two of his sons executed after they were accused of plotting against him. They joined a number of others in the netherworld, including one of Herod’s wives who had been killed because of accusations of treason. Herod was succeeded by three of his sons, who divided the kingdom between them. They were no improvement over their father.
It appears to be the older Herod who featured in the Christmas narrative (Matthew ch. 2). The wise men, called from the East by a remarkable star, arrived in Jerusalem looking for a newborn king. Their timing was terrible: Herod and his family had not recently had a child. Whoever this baby was, he was a threat to the kingdom that Herod had spent his life building and defending, even by violence. The baby was safe if no one knew where he was, but God had already announced through a prophet that the child who would be God’s own anointed would be born in Bethlehem.
While most of us would be terrified to challenge a dangerous leader like Herod, God is not intimidated by his power. God apparently allowed the wise men to wander into Jerusalem as a proclamation of the truth that even in his own kingdom, Herod was not really in charge. Just as he had seized power, someone else could seize it from him. Herod failed to take the hint: his immediate thought was to identify the threat and eliminate it. The magi were not tricked by his cunning, and when soft power had failed, King Herod resorted to his last and most terrible weapon: he sent soldiers to kill all the children in the town (Matthew 2:16-19).
We see in this scene how very different God’s kingdom is from the kingdom of men. God did not send angels or warriors to defend the child. The child did not breathe fire on his enemies. Because God has given human beings power and authority on earth (see part 3), He respects that gift and limits His interventions. God leaves space so that we can be free, but God is not powerless. God appeals to one of His obedient servants, St. Joseph, and quickly moves His Son away from the slaughter and into Egypt, outside Herod’s sphere of influence. This is absolutely typical of God’s way of doing things: He does not directly contradict human tyranny, but He works around it using the people who truly serve Him, in order to accomplish His own plans despite our stubbornness and our sin.
God’s greatest plan is our salvation, and God accomplishes this by sending Jesus. Jesus, like God the Father, does not directly oppose human authority but He does undermine it by revealing the truth: God is truly the one in charge. When the devil tempts Jesus by displaying his power, Jesus says “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matthew 4:10). Jesus lives the way we ought to live: as if God is the only real power in the world, because only God’s Word endures forever. Yet God’s Word is not a word of power or domination, but a Word of love. Jesus teaches us to trust that God will care for us (see Matthew 6:25-34), and will give us whatever we need (Matthew 7:7-12). Jesus has such a great trust in God’s love that His clearest image for God is a loving Father.
There are two reasons that this message of Jesus is hard to accept. First, we have to trust in God first in order to see that He cares for us. We tend naturally to keep from trusting Him until we are certain He is trustworthy, but this places us in an impossible predicament: we will never find we can trust Him until we do trust Him. The second reason is that God does not do things the way we would do them. On the one hand it seems obvious that an infinite and all-powerful deity would not do things the way a tiny human would, but on the other hand, this truth has a hard time sticking in human minds.
An important part of the message of Jesus is a complete renunciation of violence as a means to serve God and His kingdom. This is a hard idea to swallow, and I would not make this claim so strongly if I were not supported by a renowned theologian in the person of Pope Benedict XVI. In order to support this claim, we have to answer the objection that Jesus did personally use violence when cleansing the temple (Matthew 21:12-17,Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45). If we look at the episode a little more closely, however, Jesus did not use a sword or a spear, but a whip (as reported in John 2:15). A whip was used to punish disobedient slaves, servants, and even children. By picking up a whip, Jesus was declaring His right to punish those of God’s household, as if God Himself has visited His own house (cf. Luke 12:41-48).
Pope Benedict, when dealing with this episode in his recent book (Jesus of Nazareth, Part 2, p. 11-23) says that contrary to the claims of some scholars, this episode does not prove that Jesus was a zealot. The zealots were committed Jews whose zeal for God’s service led them to oppose the Roman government with violence and incite revolution. While Jesus proclaimed His right to clean house, He laid down the whip and picked up the cross. Pope Benedict says, “zeal for God’s house leads him to the Passion, to the cross. This is the fundamental transformation that Jesus brought to the theme of zeal – zelos. The ‘zeal’ that would serve God through violence he transformed into the zeal of the Cross. Thus he definitively established the criterion for true zeal – the zeal of self-giving love” (p. 22).
Because of his understanding of the person and mission of Jesus, Pope Benedict has taken the bold step of declaring that violence can never be used in the name of God or to build His kingdom. This position caused an uproar in the Muslim world, when the Pope stated in his speech in Regensburg in 2006, but Pope Benedict continues to insist that violence is contrary to the nature of God. It should be added the Pope has not addressed the question of whether nations or individuals can use violence in self-defense: the Pope has only said that the Church as Church cannot use violence to serve God.
This position against violence is an important part of the message of Jesus. In order to set us free from human tyranny, Jesus has to prove that truth and love are the ultimate power, not violence. He has to prove that violence leads to death and Hell, and only truth and love lead to Heaven. However, this position leaves Him vulnerable to the power of tyrants whose hearts are closed to truth and love, and who only respect violence. In short, this path leads Jesus directly to the cross….