A Tale of Two Kings
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The Imitation of Christ is a Christian devotional book written by Thomas Kempis, a man of German-Dutch descent who lived in the 15th century. The Imitation of Christ is perhaps the most widely read Christian devotional work next to the Bible, and is regarded as a devotional and religious classic. However, despite its popularity, one wonders how many people follow in imitation of Christ. A good way to answer that question would be to examine two kings—Jesus and Herod—and see who we imitate more. Let’s look at Herod first.
Herod, also known as Herod the Great, was a Roman client king of Judea, which was often referred to as the Herodian kingdom. He has been variously described as a madman, a murderer, an evil genius, a criminal with unbounded ambition and a killer of innocents and they all stand true.
Herod possessed certain traits that are common to many highly ambitious men: a desire for power, possessions, and prestige.
Power, Possessions, Prestige.
Herod was a man who sought power. He had remarkable clarity of vision and purpose and was determined to become king. Using influence, some shrewd political maneuvering, and a great deal of savagery, he became governor of Galilee when he was only twenty-five years old, not a small feat by any means, especially given there were equally power-hungry men around him.
The Roman leaders noticed this ambitious young man and appointed him “King of the Jews”, putting him in charge of the Jewish population, believing that he would control them. And control them he did, often using ruthless and cruel measures. He thought nothing of killing anyone who stood in his way or opposed him.
In addition to a desire for power, Herod had an inordinate desire for possessions, constructing seven palaces for himself and filling them with every imaginable luxury and amenity.
He also set about rebuilding the Temple of Jerusalem, not so much because he was religious, but because he sought prestige as well. Marrying into seven wealthy families also helped him attain this and eventually he was called “King Herod the Great’, a title many believe he gave himself.
Paranoia is the natural consequence of any obsessive pursuit of power, possessions and prestige, especially when obtained through any means, and Herod lived a terrified life afraid that he would lose it all one day. It didn’t help that his father was poisoned and he believed that there were people out to kill him too. He probably wasn’t entirely wrong because he was a hated man. To protect himself, he had a personal bodyguard of 2,000 soldiers and secret police monitoring the feelings of the general population; he ruthlessly put to death anyone reported as conspiring against him.
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. And once attained it is like an addictive drug that one cannot live without. Look at any dictator, past or present, to see the truth of that assertion. They will do anything and everything to retain the power they have, even at the expense of countless innocent lives, including those near to them. Saddam Hussein put close family members to death because he was afraid that they were trying to kill him.
That’s why Herod tried to kill Jesus, which brings us to another king. And what a study in contrasts he presents.
Jesus could have been born anywhere, to anyone. He could have been born to nobility and lived in the lap of luxury; after all he was the Son of God. But he chose instead to be born of a young woman who had no claim to fame in a town that nobody had heard about in circumstances that are best described as humble.
Why did he do this?
Because he wanted us to understand that his kingdom was not of this world (cf. John 18:36) and the principles in his kingdom were very different from those of the world. He would explain many of these principles in a wonderful sermon he gave on a mountain side. He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:3-11).
It was a stunning reversal of everything that anyone had ever believed in and for many he became the most dangerous person on the planet who had to be silenced. To a king who had murdered and manipulated his way to power he was dangerous from the time he was born.
When Jesus was born, King Herod was dying. His body was covered with sores, his breath was fetid with a disease that was eating him alive, and he was losing his mind. He heard about men from the east who had come to Jerusalem asking about a child who was “born king of Jews.” Herod made inquiries of his advisers who told him of a prophecy found in Micah 5:2 which spoke of one coming from the clan of Judah who would rule Israel. One can only imagine what Herod, who lived his entire life in fear of losing his throne would have felt hearing this report, but cunning like the fox he was often called, he told the wise men to search for the child and inform him when they had located him, so that he could go and pay homage himself. However, warned in a dream of Herod’s plans, the wise men made their way home from another route after seeing Jesus. The paranoid king went crazy after he discovered what had happened and ordered that all the children in and around Bethlehem who were under two years of age be killed. Jesus, of course, as we all know, escaped this “massacre of the innocents” because Joseph had been warned in a dream to flee with mother and child.
Which king do we follow?
Christians need to ask hard questions from time to time that force themselves to introspect and see if they are traveling the hard road that leads to life or the easy road that leads to destruction (cf. Matthew 7:13).
Asking ourselves which king we follow might give us an indication of the road, and while the instinctive response to that would undoubtedly be, “Jesus, of course!” let us examine the truth of that declaration.
How strong is our desire for power? A simple examination of our relationships would help answer that question. How much do we try to control the people in our life? These include our spouses, our children, our employees, and others who might be subordinate to us, like waiters and others who serve us. On more than one occasion Jesus declared where he stood on this. Once, when he was asked—rather cheekily—by two of his apostles to be seated by his side, one to his left and one to his right when he died, he said: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).
At another time closer to his death he got to his knees before his apostles and washed their feet. “After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15).
How eagerly do we crave possessions? A barometer of this would be the size of our houses and the number of things we have in it, including clothes and knick-knacks. Yes, we need to wear clothes and it’s nice to decorate our houses, but to what extent?
Jesus made his views about this too very clear. We probably know the story of the rich young man who went to Jesus asking about eternal life (see Mark 10:17-20). When Jesus told him that if he wanted to be perfect, he needed to sell everything, give it to poor and follow him, the young man went away very dejected. Jesus said: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33).
This doesn’t mean we need to sell our homes, climb up mountains, and become hermits, but it means that we don’t give any possessions in our lives precedence over Jesus. If we have really discovered him, we would also have discovered how valuable he is, and like the farmer in the field who discovered treasure (see Matthew 13:44) we’d sell everything we had to possess him. And then say, as Paul said: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).
And strangely, once we have given up everything, he gives us everything—and more! But then Jesus did say, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
And how desperately do we seek prestige? We would all like to be honored, be treated like royalty, be seated in positions of importance. Like the apostles, I am sure that we would love to sit at Jesus’ right hand or left hand in heaven too. It isn’t a bad thing to seek glory and Jesus didn’t tell them not to. He told them that it would come to them if they followed his advice.
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:8‑11).
The thing to remember is that the operating rules in the Kingdom of Heaven are vastly different, sometimes diametrically opposite, to the rules of the world. Which is the reason Paul tells us: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2).
And we finally come to paranoia, which as we have already seen comes with the territory of power, possessions and prestige. We cannot be afraid of losing what we do not have, but we become terrified of losing what we do have if we cling to it.
We are afraid of losing our possessions so we guard them zealously. We are afraid of losing our power, so we get more domineering and dictatorial. We are afraid of losing our prestige, usually fabricated, so we lie and scheme to ensure nobody finds out that none of it is real.
This makes us paranoid, and when we get paranoid we become miniature versions of Herod and every dictator who has walked upon this earth, determined to cling to what we have no matter what the consequences. And one of the consequences is death.
That’s not what Jesus came to do on the day we celebrate as Christmas. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” he said. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
If there is one thing that we do need to be paranoid about, it is losing that life. Because, as Jesus asks: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:36).
We can, however, have that life, and in the abundant measure that Jesus promises all those who follow him. And when we do, dispensing with the worldly quest for power, prestige and possessions, we get this peace.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” declares Jesus in John 14:27.
Let us all have this peace this year and through all the years that follow.