In the Lectionary

January 3, Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12)

Epiphany is the ultimate bad-guy story.

At a family Christmas service years ago, I sat down on the floor at the front of the church, like you do, and read a book with the kids, retelling the story of Jesus’ birth according to Luke. We looked at the pictures and talked about what was happening, and a couple of kids asked loud and funny questions, enjoying how the adults in the congregation laughed and smiled at what they said. But one of the smallest boys, in a very quiet voice the other adults couldn’t quite hear, sat right in front of the book and asked me the same question, over and over: on each page, he would point to someone and ask me, “Is that a bad guy?”

At first I answered, “No, that’s a shepherd,” or “No, that’s just a person,” but after a few pages I had to start ignoring him. The thing is, there aren’t really any bad guys in Luke’s version of the nativity. Maybe the innkeeper? Augustus Caesar wasn’t included in this particular children’s book.

In Matthew’s version, however, which I can’t imagine any church reads on Christmas Eve—at least not in full, much less for the children’s sermon—there is one very bad guy: Herod the Great. As you read Matthew 2, he sounds stomach-churningly familiar: a classic tyrant, paranoid, ready to use lies and violence against any threat to his power. The Bible doesn’t mention this, but by the time of the birth of Jesus, he’d already killed many people he saw as threats, including his second wife, Mariamne I, and three of his own sons.