by Chuck DeGroat
Building towers show your power and glory.
Just ask King Herod, who built his infamous fortress-home on the highest hill in the Judean desert, 5km southeast of Bethlehem. Judah’s king, the king of God’s chosen people, was the great builder of his time. “Herod Towers” dotted the landscape of this ancient world, but this one was a masterpiece. This seven story private castle donned courtyards, bathhouses, gardens, and dozens of rooms for royal guests. It was a military stronghold, an inaccessible buttress which provided the king unquestionable security. And it was no less an obnoxious buttress for his fragile ego.
We do not know for sure, but it was (perhaps) a quiet Judean evening when Mary, at full-term with the Child-Christ, scampered by Herod Tower on her way to Bethlehem. What an extraordinary picture of vulnerability–Mary and Joseph, sojourners and refugees, searching for a place to lay their heads, within a stone’s throw of this palatial place. Mary could not have been comfortable, but her discomfort did not arise from the frightening world outside of her but the world she carried within her. She was to bear the one who was to bear the sins of the world. These were not your typical labor pains.
Embedded in the comfort and privilege of his tower, Herod took the birth of Jesus as a sign of doom. Insecure and fragile, this man who’d already stomped out the lives of dear family members perceived to be a threat would now commission the assassination of the Child-Christ. But that would not be sufficient, either. This was a man who could not lose. He refused to lose. His approach was to stomp out all threats. And so, he commanded that all boys under the age of two be murdered…just in case. For Herod, the death of innocents was acceptable in light of the larger danger. For this king of the Jews, a small perceived threat merited a sinister counter-punch.
It’s no surprise that scripture says Blessed are the poor and Woe to the rich. The rich can hide their fragile egos behind things. The rich are prone to externalization, re-arranging the circumstances and possessions in their lives in self-protective ways, rarely needing to engage in the introspective work of self-knowledge and humility. The poor have no such luxury. They are out in the elements, like Mary and Joseph, simply awaiting angels. There is no tower, just an animal stall, the smell of manure, and utter powerlessness.
Relying on angelic graces, the Child-Christ would not die at the hands of the fragile and fearful king. Nor would he eventually take up arms and stare down the bully. He didn’t avoid politics, though. In his words and deeds, he embodied a different kind of politic, an upside-down revolution of divine love where outsiders would become insiders, where the poor would be made rich, where the sad would receive comfort, where unclean would be made clean, where all would be welcome. He’d not build towers for protection but willingly receive blows in order to end the order of violence. He’d not build walls but bridges to all who are lost, all who seek earnestly and long deeply for another way. And in an unimaginable act of paradoxical grace, he’d demonstrate that being captured, beaten, and killed is not about losing but about ultimate victory. Few would understand. Few still do. It all seems a bit melodramatic, even preposterous.
And so, behind our towers, we reduce this Jesus to our meal ticket to heavenly paradise while all-the-while ignoring the implications of this paradoxical life for us, for our lives, our institutions, even our politics. The name of Jesus is proclaimed, but the implications of his life and message are dismissed. We are much more quick to quote the second amendment than “turn the other cheek.” We are fast to declare our rights and slow to give them away for the least of these. We choose narratives of self-protection, winning, good guys vs. bad guys, and me and mine all the while believing the sad lie that this is how Jesus would have it.
For Herod, the tower eventually became his tomb. It could not protect him from death. They mocked Jesus as “the King of the Jews,” but to everyone’s great shock his resurrection movement spread all over not on account of his celebrity or power but his extraordinary humility. Early Christians longed to mimic his life in their martyrdom. Second century writer Justin Martyr wrote:
We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.
Clement of Alexandria wrote:
He impoverishes himself out of love, so that he is certain he may never overlook a brother in need, especially if he knows he can bear poverty better than his brother. He likewise considers the pain of another as his own pain. And if he suffers any hardship because of having given out of his own poverty, he does not complain.
Christians became known not as the brokers of power but ambassadors of love.
Herod’s tower became his tomb. For a lifetime, it held his fear, his insecurity, his fragility. For Jesus, these are the very things that open us up to resurrection-life.
The tomb of Jesus, however, became a kind of chrysalis in which a transformation took place. It is ever a reminder that we do not need to live lives of self-protection, hiding behind our rights, our walls, our weapons, our ethnicity, our self-righteousness. Jesus says, “Do not fear.”
Tough guys end up in tombs of their own making. In this political season, perhaps more than ever, we’ve got to keep our eyes focused on Jesus and let his life disrupt our fear, our comfort, our privilege, and our scapegoating. And no matter who ends up in political office, followers of Christ know that the real power isn’t in a position or title, but en Christo, in Christ, whose life animates ours, whose loving inspires ours, whose sacrifice stirs us to holy discomfort and radical grace.
Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is away today. We welcome guest blogger Chuck De Groat. Chuck teaches pastoral counseling and care at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Thanks, Chuck!