A reflection on Matthew 2.3–8:
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”‘ Then Hero secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘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.’
What struck me about this passage, as never before, was that Herod “was frightened”. And not just Herod, but “all Jerusalem with him.” Imagine that atmosphere of fear, the pressure Herod must have been under to act. The distorting influence of his own fear, coupled with the weight and pressure of the fears of his people – these are what drive him.
It might be easier to imagine Herod acting from spite or vindictiveness. If Herod remains the archetypal pantomime villain, we can go on reassuring ourselves that we, of course, would never do that, never be like him.
But fear is a different matter. We all feel fear. Most of us are self-aware enough to know the ways it distorts our perceptions and decisions. And so the uncomfortable thought creeps in that maybe, just maybe, we too might be capable of giving in to a cruelty born of fear.
Which, of course, we are. But we are also capable of resisting that impulse. We have a choice: to give in to fear, or not.