A tyrant loses moral authority


Several steps of the palace of Herod the Great peak through the lawn immediately to the right of the lad jumping off the low wall. Herod’s palace, which rivaled the Temple itself, filled the entire area from these steps to the distant slender tower.

On the west side of Old Jerusalem, outside the city wall, lads from a Yeshiva school visit with their teacher and play. They gather among scant ruins of what probably was the western entrance to Herod the Great’s palace at the time Jesus was born.

Matthew reports that wise men from the East, presumably Gentiles, came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have come to pay him homage.” When Herod heard this, “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:3).

Tyrants fear competition, and people of Judea had reason to fear what an erratic ruler such as Herod would do next. The king summoned chief priests and scribes, who cited Micah 5 to confirm that scripture called for a messianic ruler to come from the nearby village: “O Bethlehem . . . one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.” He will “feed his flock in the strength of the Lord” and “shall be the one of peace” (Micah 5:1-5).

But peace was not on Herod’s mind when he heard about the birth of a new king. Lying to cover his murderous design, Herod fed deceit into the communication network. He told the wise men to “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.”

Instead of joining in worship, Herod sent troops to slaughter all baby boys of Bethlehem in hopes of killing Jesus. Joseph and Mary with the newborn Christ already had fled to Egypt.

Herod was not the nurturing shepherd that Micah portrayed as the ideal ruler! But when angels came to fields near Bethlehem to announce news of Jesus’ birth, they came to real shepherds. The angels brought a healing message in contrast to Herod’s cruelty: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace” (Luke 2).

Shepherds in ancient Palestine were not the despised, untrustworthy persons some interpreters make them out to be. But they held a humble place in the social order, matching the lowly status of Jesus’ servant-girl mother. Shepherds came to the stable to worship the ruler who Micah said would feed his flock. The wise men, probably well-to-do astrologers, came from a distant culture to offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

There is no indication that shepherds and wise men visited at the same time. But, taken as a whole, the Gospels depict all of humanity bowing to the Christ child: rich and poor, marginal and elite, Jew and Gentile, domestic and foreign.

Herod seethed in his palace, a luxurious structure one thousand feet long that featured multiple baths, banquet halls, and gardens. The king had real estate and weapons, but also so many enemies that he had to build safe houses at various places in his realm where he could retreat if his people rebelled.

Tyrants eventually lose moral authority. Revolts that erupted in Galilee and Jerusalem before and immediately after Herod died failed. But his kingdom fragmented over the next generation, and the Herod dynasty was gone. Two millennia later, the kingdom that began with the child in a stable at Bethlehem counts citizens on every continent, wherever people call Jesus Lord and accept the angel’s message, “glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace.”

© 2017  J. Nelson Kraybill ******************************************IMG_0410 (4)

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Come with Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walking tour in Galilee and Jerusalem! Dates are May 14-25, 2018, and the pace will be moderate. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took his disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route on foot, and travel by vehicle to see more. Note that this tour cannot be a large group, and we are near capacity for registration. Contact TourMagination promptly if you wish to join!   See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/holy-land-peace-pilgrim-walk-jesus/

In praise of the innkeeper

That poor innkeeper at Bethlehem! For centuries the church has berated him for turning away a woman in labor and making her give birth in a stable. It is possible, though, that the innkeeper actually provided the warmest, safest, and most private place he could for Mary to give birth. Will we show the same level of hospitality for vulnerable persons arriving in our communities?


A modern painting in the chapel at Shepherds Field shows the birth of Jesus in a cave.

Bethlehem was on the highway south from Jerusalem to Hebron and Egypt. Along such a highway there were caravanserai, rustic inns for travelers and their animals, often with minimal privacy and with risk of crime.

Perhaps such an inn at Bethlehem was overbooked, and turned away Joseph and Mary. But when Luke 2:7 refers to the facility where there was “no place” for the visitors from Nazareth, it is not with the word inn (pandokeion). Instead, Luke uses a term (kataluma) meaning guest room or dining room.

Since Joseph had family roots in Bethlehem, it is likely that he and Mary stayed with relatives. Palestinian homes of the era typically consisted of one large room where the entire household lived, dined, and slept. If relatives in addition to Joseph and Mary also arrived needing lodging, the house would have been crowded and inhospitable for childbirth.

Today thousands of pilgrims to Bethlehem stream into Church of the Nativity, the sixth-century structure built where a fourth-century church once stood. Visitors descend into the church’s crypt—in reality, a cave. Here, by ancient tradition, Mary gave birth to Jesus. This is a scenario for how that could have happened:

People of ancient Palestine commonly built their houses against or on top of a cave in the bedrock. Cave rooms were cool in summer and warm in winter, affording safe shelter for people and animals. Mary and Joseph may have planned to stay at such a cave-house at Bethlehem, sleeping in the main room with a gaggle of relatives. But Mary went into labor, and the main room of the house “was no place” for Mary to give birth. Instead, caring hosts took Mary and Joseph into the adjacent cave where there was privacy and animal warmth.

Bethlehem JNK with copyright.jpg

A woman kneels (lower left) to reach into the spot where, by tradition, Jesus was born. A scrum of pilgrims wait their turn.

It is hard to picture this humble scene when visiting Church of the Nativity today. Pilgrims crowd into the crypt, many so devout and moved by the holy site that they seem to jostle each other out of the way. Walls of the cave are garish with the barnacles of piety—candles, ornaments, precious metals. A silver star that once adorned the floor exactly where Jesus was born was stolen in 1847—a deed that helped trigger the Crimean War (1854-1856)!  

I visit Church of the Nativity whenever I can. But singing carols in a small cave at nearby Shepherd’s Field nurtures me more. Away from the crush of the crypt, I can better picture the unadorned and humble surroundings of Jesus’ birth. My mind turns to immigrants and refugees—millions around the world—who need basic shelter and safety. Will I do my part to show the hospitality that I believe unnamed hosts at Bethlehem showed to the mother of my Lord?

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

In 2018 I plan to lead a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour for people with hiking boots, accessible to non-athletes like myself. Tentative dates are May 15-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and possibly hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls (yes, you can circumnavigate the Old City on top of the walls), trace the Triumphal Entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or with www.TourMagination.com