It’s now the Christmas season (in the Church’s liturgical calendar, not in our secular culture’s consumerist view), and when this time of year rolls around, we usually think about nice things. For example, we often think of love, kindness, generosity, and cheer. However, if we let our minds be shaped by Scripture, that’s not all we should think about. Consider the story of the wise men from the east who came to visit the newborn Jesus. It starts off like this:
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:1-3)
How Many Kings?
If we read this story carefully, we’ll notice that the word “king” is repeated three times in just as many verses. First Herod is called king, then Jesus is given the title “king of the Jews,” and finally the text reminds us once again that Herod was the king. If we think about this, there seems to be some tension here. There can be only one true king (much like Jesus’ teaching later in Matthew that nobody can serve two masters), so it must be either Herod or Jesus. They can’t both be king.
And the fact that Herod “was troubled” when he heard about Jesus confirms this for us. It’s tough to imagine why else he would be worried that the “king of the Jews” had been born if it wasn’t because he feared for his throne.
One True King
So what should we make of this? Was Matthew simply using the word “king” in a loose, inexact sense, or is there something else going on here? I would suggest that Matthew was quite aware of this tension, and he introduced it into the text on purpose. He was trying to teach us something about the relationship between Jesus’ kingship and the authority of worldly rulers.
While we have a duty to obey our government when it enacts and enforces just laws, we Christians can only have one true king, and that’s Jesus. He’s our highest authority, and we owe him our allegiance above any other claimant, including our country and our government. If there’s ever any conflict between the laws of our land and the requirements of our faith, we have to follow our faith. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Real Tests of Faith
And this isn’t just theoretical. Our society is slowly moving in an anti-Christian direction, and we’ve already experienced overt government demands to compromise our convictions. To take just one example, think back to Obama’s HHS mandate a few years ago that required Catholic businesses and institutions to offer coverage for contraceptives in their healthcare plans. The government infringed on our religious freedom and forced people to choose whether they would serve God or the state, and the way things are going, it looks like we may be facing similar pressure again in the not-too-distant future.
So when we celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world, we shouldn’t think only of nice, innocuous things like smiles and candy canes. Those things are fine, but we should also recognize that we’re celebrating the coming of our king, the true ruler of our lives, the one to whom we owe our complete allegiance. We should remember that every other authority is (at best) secondary, so while patriotism is fine (in fact, it’s a virtue), it has its limits. Our love for God, on the other hand, should be limitless, so no matter how much we may love our country, when push comes to shove our ultimate loyalty should be with our true king.