Hell-Bent to Kill; Heaven-Sent to Save

Christians don’t save by killing. We save by saving, by giving life


Bible Faith Virtue

The story of the three Magi from the East following the star to Jerusalem is told during the Christmas season (Matt. 2:1-18). It is not like the heart-warming aspects of Christ’s birth, with an angel speaking to shepherds and angels singing. Rather, it is a story that ends with weeping and wailing by bereft mothers, and with the Holy Family’s 100-mile flight to Egypt. It is a story hauntingly told in the hymn “Coventry Carol.” It presages the event commemorated on the day Christians call “Good Friday,” the day of the crucifixion of Jesus.

The Magi came to Jerusalem and met Herod the Great (reigned 37-4 B.C.; to see how bad a guy he was, see the Wall Street Journal review, Mar. 9-10, on Martin Goodman’s Herod the Great). After consulting with his experts on where the Messiah was to be born, Herod directed the Magi to Bethlehem. He asked the Magi to return after they had found the “young child” and tell him so he too could worship. A lie. Herod could brook no pretender to his throne.

The Gospel does not tell us that Herod had the Magi trailed. It does not tell us that Herod bribed a servant of the Magi to be an informant and return with the information. Instead, the Gospel reports that, when Herod learned, after some unstated lapse of time, that they had found the “young child” and had departed from Bethlehem and the area without telling him, he was exceedingly irate. (The Gospel does not say who gave this information to Herod.)

Herod was hell-bent on killing the one child. To make sure he did so, he ordered all male children under the age of two in Bethlehem killed. The aftermath was “Rachel weeping… and she would not be comforted.” We are informed that the number of these “Holy Innocents” was, given the estimated population for this small village, about 20. The Gospels do not tell us whether Herod and his advisers considered any alternative to murder. Herod could have enslaved the infants (as Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers; see Genesis 37:28) or banished them.

In considering this story of the Magi, Herod the Great, and the Holy Innocents, we can recall the Pharaoh of Egypt. He decided that the number of Hebrew slaves had grown too large. He feared that they (that is, the men) would ally themselves with an enemy of Egypt. Pharaoh ordered midwives to kill all male Hebrews upon birth (Exodus 1:15-22). Baby Moses escaped.

Now fast-forward 30 or more years from the time of Jesus’ birth. Caiaphas (pronounced “kahy-uh-fuhs”) was a Jewish high priest in first century A.D. Palestine, the son-in-law of the former high priest Annas. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Caiaphas had been appointed to this position in 18 A.D. by Valerius Gratus, the predecessor to the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. Caiaphas was not removed for 18 years — until Vatellius removed him in 36 A.D. The Catholic Encyclopedia from the early 20th century observed that, at “a time when high-priests were made and unmade by officials of Rome, and when the principal quality required seems to have been subserviency, it is no credit to the character of Caiaphas to have enjoyed their favour so long.”

The New Testament reports on a dinner at a home in Bethany. One account says it was the home of Simon “the Leper” (he could not have actually been a leper, although he could have been ostracized for some other reason). The other account says it was the home of Mary, Martha, and the recently raised-from-the-dead Lazarus. In both accounts, a woman poured hugely expensive oil, equal to 300 days’ wages, on the head of Jesus. Judas Iscariot, a disciple of Jesus, was incensed at this “waste.” Judas went to the chief priests who were meeting in Caiaphas’s home and plotting to put Jesus to death. Judas asked for their price and they gave him 30 pieces of silver (Matt. 26: 3-15; Mark 14:3-11; John 11:45-53).

After area reports whirled that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:38-44), “the chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus…because on account of him many of the Jews…believed in Jesus” (John 12:10-11).

The chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin, saying to themselves, “If we leave Him alone, all will believe in Him and the Romans will take away both our land and our nation.” Caiaphas, speaking not for himself but in his official capacity, announced, “It is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish” (John 11: 47-52, 18:14). This was a political calculation.

In addition, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin had religious reasons:

  • Jesus called religious leaders hypocrites and vipers (Matt. 3:7-10; Matt. 12:1-9; Matt. 23; Luke 11)
  • Jesus failed to observe sanitary rules and insist that His followers do so (Mark 7:1-5, 15-19)
  • Jesus failed to observe the Sabbath by: plucking heads of grain (Matt. 12:1–8; Mark 2:23–28; Luke 6:1–5) and curing on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11)
  • Jesus upturned tables of the moneychangers at the Temple (Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-16)
  • Jesus gave bad example by mixing with “unclean” people, sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors (Matt. 9:10-17, 11:19, 21:31-32; Mark 2:14-16; Luke 5:27-32, 7:34)
  • Jesus (supposedly) blasphemed by forgiving sins (Matt. 9:2-3; Luke 5:20-21) and calling Himself the Son of God (Matt. 26:63-65, 27:43)

Like Herod the Great, Caiaphas was hell-bent on killing Jesus. The Gospels do not report that Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin considered any alternatives to murder, such as banishment or slavery. No, Caiaphas wanted Jesus dead — even in the face of Pilate telling the crowd four times that Jesus was innocent, that He certainly had done nothing deserving capital punishment (Matt. 27:24; Luke 23:4, 14-15, 22). Pilate, learning that Herod may have jurisdiction, sent Jesus to Herod (Luke 23:7-8) and told the crowd that Herod agreed with Pilate that Jesus was innocent (Luke 23:15). Pilate had Jesus “chastised” with a severe scourging (Matt. 27:26, Mark 15:15, John 19:1) and wanted to release him. Pilate reminded the crowd of the annual custom of commuting the sentence of a prisoner at the time of Passover (Matt. 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:13-25; John 18:38-19:16).

Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin did not care if Jesus was innocent. They said exactly this to Judas when Judas complained to them that he had betrayed innocent blood (Matt. 27:4). They must have been absolutely astounded that Pilate cared about innocence, that Pilate didn’t want to execute just one individual on Caiaphas’s say-so, that Pilate didn’t see the threat that Jesus posed to Roman power, and that Pilate didn’t see the threat Jesus posed to the power the Romans had given Caiaphas!

As it turned out, Caiaphas unwittingly saved the nation by killing its Savior.

Christ and His followers, up to the current day, flip this attitude of Pharaoh, Herod the Great, and Caiaphas. We Christians don’t save by killing. We save by saving, by giving life.

The great missionary St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) said, “To go to the extreme ends of the earth to save one soul, and then die, would be an enviable fortune.” An American, Maryknoll Bishop James E. Walsh (1891-1981), remained in China after the Communists took over. He was under house arrest and then, in 1958, at age 67, he was imprisoned. He was released 12 years later, at age 79. The following year, 1971, he addressed Maryknollers who had been given their mission assignments:

You do not go alone to your field of labor, for God Himself goes with you. And your Maryknoll family will also be with you by its God-given vocation. You are privileged men. For to you is given this grace – to preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ. There is no greater privilege than that among human vocations and occupations. There is no work so important. To preach Christ everywhere is the hope of the world. And now you enter upon that work. You go to take part in it and thus make a return to God for the grace of your vocation. You depart for the missions to find the other sheep for the Good Shepherd, to preach the Gospel to the souls whom He has redeemed by His cross. You are given a cross as a sign of your mission, for we preach Christ crucified. Go, then, with God. And go the whole way with God.

Rather than being hell-bent to kill, we, like the Master, are heaven-sent to save.


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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