Small Things

Matthew 2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod.

 

The rumor mill in International Relations always runs on high, making montains out of very small mole hills. I doubt it was much different in Palestine two thousand years ago in the era of Roman control. I recall during Richard Nixon’s presidency when Richard Post, an inveterate Cuba watcher, came storming into the office on Capitol Hill absolutely elated to report an apparent positive development in relations between Washington and Havana. After over a dozen years of recalitrance the Cuban Government’s newspaper Granma printed Nixon’s name with an X rather than a swastika. People who follow international relations live by Zechariah 4:10 “For who hath despised the day of small things?

That something big was happening that could make for enormous changes in the control of the trade routes around the eastern end of the Mediterranean hadn’t been lost on those who kept track of these things. Our English fails to give us insight into many great concepts especially when we’ve learned our geography from an North American perspective. Take how we’ve come to think of the Mediterranian, that small pond that holds Europe and Africa apart. It’s hard for us to remember that Med means the middle, terra is the whole earth. In the day our scriptures were written this body of water was the very middle of the earth and it was of great importance whatever power controlled the trade routes that carried goods from Egypt to Syria on the eastern end of the ocean.

For those who followed such things, it somehow became known that a Prince of the Davidic monarchy had taken as wife a princess of the same lineage and that an heir was in the offing. It was one of those small things that peaked great interest. A new star was rising. From Egypt to Damascus – all the people of the levant understood the potential for being shed of the boot of Rome and sent a delegation to win favor.

Representatives of the Roman Empire were Romans and they believed the Roman theology. Rome was the eternal city and was expected to rule forever. They had the power in their military might that was very carefully spread to the ends of its reach. Being posted to Jerusalem was a social death sentence, it was to be banished from the courts of prestige and power. And no one in Rome paid any attention to what happened in the outlands.

Not so with those who were dependent on eastern mediterranean trade.

Typically emissaries would come to Palestine from the west, through Rome, and Roman officials would be alerted to their coming well in advance. So it came as a surprise to Herod to learn that a delegation from countries to the east, beyond the Empire’s control had boots on the ground in his territory. Since 1857 we’ve sung John Henry Hopkins lyrics of the three kings from the orient. It may have given us some wrong ideas. Every place to the east was called the orient. The Orient Express got it’s name from its destination, Istanbul which we understand as the beginning of the east or the orient. That’s not really the case. The text reads: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;

It wasn’t surprise that rose in Herod’s heart. It was fright! “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they asked. Scholarship suggests that Herod Antipas ruled Palestine later than the time of Jesus birth, it was his brother Archelaus. He was the ethnarch of Samaria, Judea and Idumea at the time of the Census of Quirinius. The whole story is rife with intra jewish prejudice and rivalry, ethnic and dynastic cleansing and palace intrigue. It’s helpful to understand that this particular Herod was on the throne when the whole of the Hasmonean dynasty was slaughtered by the Romans and in another incident over three thousand Jews were massacred. And this is the guy who the text says was frightened by the announcement of the three eastern dignitaries.

The passage of Matthew’s birth narrative tell us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. With litle warning Joseph is told to make a 600 mile trip to get the infant Jesus out of the reaches of Herod Archelaus. Most of us came to the conclusion that that is what became of the tribute provided by the visitors from the east. When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Regardless it certainly helps us understand the weight that Herod gave to the dynastic threat the birth of Jesus posed to his position and the hold Rome had over the territory.

Is there a lesson for us, about how we react to preceived threats to the loss of our privilege and position? How far do we go to maintain our sense of control over our world?

 

 

With the overthrow by Fidel Castro of the U.S. supported Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar in 1959, with the exception of Kennedy’s ill planned Bay of Pigs invasion, the CIA bombing of the plane returning the Cuban fencing team home from Venezuela and the Cuban’s shooting down a plane intent on rescuing a family seeking to flee the brutality of the Castro regime, relations between our two countries has been more of a comedic than substantial nature. It was two years after Castro threw the gambling and prostitution out of Havana and after the ill fated Bay of Pigs attempt to restore democracy and economic stablity to the island that Las Vegas became home to America’s appetite for decadence. Baseball has been one area in which the fifty year long embargo has not been enforced.

 

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