A Scripture scholar once told me that it is very important to pay attention to the minor characters in Scripture stories. This advice is especially true with respect to the Epiphany. If we consider the major characters in this account to be the Holy Family and the Magi, that leaves Herod as the minor character to examine.
The Magi arrive at Herod’s palace and tell him they are looking for the new king who has been born; they have been following his star. The words “new king” send Herod into musings concerning the possible loss of his power to this new king. When his own seers say that a new king has been prophesied to come from Bethlehem, the town of David,
Herod begins to fear. He takes measures against this king. He lies to the Magi saying that when they find this king, they should come back and tell him, so he can also pay honor to the new king. When the Magi do not return, Herod destroys the male infants of Bethlehem younger than two years old.
Herod’s pattern fits the life scheme of all tyrants: I must hold onto power in any and every circumstance; I will lie to achieve my goal of hanging on to power; if the lie does not work, then I will destroy the supposed threat.
What Herod does not understand about this new king is that there are other ways of governing that do not involve power, lying and destruction. Jesus shows humility, truth and care as the genuine way to rule. The Holy Family is truly humble. They live a simple life of tradespeople. This family lives the truth by being obedient to the will of God. They care for others and for each other as a way of life. We remember Mary’s visit during Elizabeth’s time of pregnancy, Joseph’s willingness to take Mary as his wife and to care for the child. Tradespeople are not celebrities and do not seek fame.
The Magi reveal another contrast with Herod. Herod is part of the tradition that Jews are the chosen people to the exclusion of all others. The Magi, however, have traveled a long distance from the east to see this king, and have been welcomed by the Holy Family despite the fact that they are foreigners. This signals to the reader that the new kingdom is not exclusive but rather universal. In other words, the new chosen people are all humanity.
This brief exposition of the Epiphany story through examination of Herod as the minor character shows us how radically different the kingdom of God is from all human kingdoms. There is no threat to power, no need for lying, no destruction of other people and no exclusivity. The new king does bring truly good news.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.