Kings and Homage

This coming Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord. In yesterday’s post we considered  the “Star of Bethlehem.” In today’s post we finish our study with a view toward King Herod and the meaning of “do him homage.

Kings. Matthew is not concerned with the historical Herod. Herod serves as a foil for the conflict against the kingdom of God. When the magi contacted the king, “King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled.”  Matthews is not referring to the psychological turmoil of one man, but the clash of the two claims of kingship. The theme of conflict is one that occurs throughout Matthew’s narrative. When we read that and all Jerusalem was troubled with the king, it is not in sympathy with Herod, but rather the tension that comes with messianic arrival. Just as at the end of the gospel when Jerusalem will be implicated in the passion and death of Jesus, those troubles are nascent even now.

“Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” (Mt 2:4-6) It should be noted that this is not a single quote but is taken from Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2

This is more than a geographical location, Bethlehem is the town of David, a “son of David” born there is born to be “King of the Jews. This is Herod’s concern.

The prominent role of Herod in the story prepares the way for his infanticide in v. 16. The story of Herod’s fear for his throne and his ruthless political massacre could hardly fail to remind a Jewish reader of the Pharaoh at the time of Moses’ birth whose infanticide threatened to destroy Israel’s future deliverer, while Jesus’ providential escape to Egypt and subsequent return will echo the story of Moses’ escape from slaughter and of his subsequent exile and return. Herod’s place in the story thus ensures not only a reflection on who is the true “king of the Jews” and on the contrast between Herod’s ruthlessly-protected political power and Jesus’ different way of being “king,” but also sets up the model for the new-born Messiah to play the role of the new Moses, who will also deliver his people (cf. 1:21) and through whose ministry a new people of God will be constituted just as Israel became God’s chosen people through the exodus and the covenant at Sinai under the leadership of Moses.

Homage. Three times in this text (vv. 2, 8, 11) the phrase “do him homage”  is used. This is a single word in Greek (proskuneo) that refers to a posture of worship — bowing down; and an attitude of worship. It seems clear that Herod expresses the desire to “worship” Jesus, but it would have been a false worship. His attitude is one of fear (v. 3) for his own position and status.  Many ask,  “If Herod and the religious leaders know where the king is to be born and if they really wanted to worship him, why don’t they go with the Magi?” It is perhaps no more complicated that the powerful center resists God’s purposes, while the lowly (Bethlehem) and marginal (the Gentile magi) embrace them.”

There needs to be a willingness to act on what one believes. Getting people to go through the proper motions of worship does not mean that they have the proper attitude of worshiping God. Mark Allan Powell (God with Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew’s Gospel, 41-2) suggests what Matthew considers the proper response to Jesus – and it’s not worship!

Still if worship is an appropriate response, it is not the ideal one. For Matthew, the ideal response to divine activity is repentance. … Indeed, Jesus never upbraids people for failing to worship or give thanks in this gospel (compare Luke 17:17-18), but he does upbraid those who have witnessed his mighty works and not repented (11:20-24). We know from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew that people can worship God with their lips even when their deeds demonstrate that their hearts are far from God (15:3-9). Thus, the responsive worship of the crowds in 9:8 and 15:31 is commendable but will be in vain if performed with unrepentant hearts.

The magi are not orthodox, yet they are obedient and respond to the mighty works of God – they are like the merchant in search of the pearl of great price (13:45) and the women at the tomb on Easter morning (28:8) – they are filled with joy.

And so the magi set a course for home. Their departure is no less supernatural than their arrival.

Image Credit: The Adoration of the Magi by Edward Burne-Jones (1904) | Public Domain

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