No flight of Fancy
You have to hand it to Matthew in the way he balances a sense of wonder for the coming of Jesus with the grimmer bits. First we have the angels, the shepherds and even the wise men and a guiding star…a good story, filled with awe and wonder and even with a touch of magic. Then suddenly Matthew switches the mood of his story from pure wonder to pure horror. Herod is furious. Learning that he has been tricked by the wise men, who, despite their previous promise, evidently have no intention of coming back with information about a potential king being born in the area, Herod now in effect throws his toys. He flies into a rage and sends his soldiers to kill all young male infants in the neighbourhood. Joseph and Mary are warned and flee with the baby Jesus to Egypt.
It is true that many modern scholars claim that this story seems unlikely as literal history, in the first place because it seems at odds with the parallel story in Luke which has no flight to Egypt, and in the second place, none of the detailed contemporary histories of Herod record such an event. On the other hand, even if Matthew was recounting this story almost as if it were a parable about Jesus, it offers more than a midrash or pious legend. In any event, the grimmer bits matter if only because the real world is not all sweetness and light, even at Christmas.
Matthew’s version of Christmas is important because first it accurately depicts the time into which Jesus was born. The misfortunes which befell many of that time created more than enough refugees to have the commentators on the Bible passages find parallels with previous ages. I suspect there were so many incidents where ruthless rulers and invading forces exacted terrible punishment on the population that I am by no means certain that a small scale massacre of infants (some suggest maybe 20 or 30 for the then size of Bethlehem) would have made it into the histories of the day. Even if Matthew was only intending his story as parable, it is still plausible for the age. The Romans’ occupation and the dark moods of King Herod can but only have exacerbated the vast number of refugees almost constantly on the move. The Jews in particular seemed to be singled out as easy targets and historians point to the large population of Jews scattered to the cities of neighbouring countries. For example Alexandria in Egypt was said to be host to something like a million Jews at the time of Christ.
No matter what we would like to believe about Matthew’s story of Herod, we have plenty of evidence to confirm to us that Herod was a dangerous neighbour. He may not be independently confirmed to have ordered the murder of the infants of Bethlehem but child murder was very much part of his character. For example he had three of his own children murdered on the grounds that they may have been plotting against him, and for good measure had one of his ten wives executed for adultery.
The Emperor Augustus is said to have remarked about Herod that it would be safer to be Herod’s pig that to be one of his sons. As an aside we might note that since the Greek word for pig (hys) sounds very close to the Greek work for son (hyos) we might assume that this was intended as a pun to entertain the Roman nobility who spoke fluent Greek at the time.
The second reason why Matthew may have wanted to stress the flight to Egypt was because some of the prophecies that Matthew quoted drew a parallel between Jesus and Moses.
So Moses took his wife and his sons and set them on an ass, and
went back to the land of Egypt. – Exodus 4.20
This is very close to Matthew’s rephrasing for Joseph and his family flight to Egypt
And he (Joseph) rose and took the child and his mother, and went
to the land of Israel.
For Matthew’s readers, the image of Jesus as a new Moses returning to lead his people out of their bondage would be readily understood symbolism. After all here we had the infant Moses saved from almost certain death, and brought up in Egypt so that he might rescue his people…. and now in Matthew’s parallel story Jesus saved from almost certain death to be brought up in Egypt that he might rescue his people.
For Matthew’s readers listening to the words of this gospel at a time when once again the refugees were fleeing Israel this time from the wrath of the Romans after yet another Jewish rebellion had failed, there must have been those wondering if God had not only abandoned them but had deliberately set about destroying them. The modern parallel of God deliberately destroying is revisited by the religiously credulous time after time in the aftermath of each new major disaster. Yet Matthew pulls back from this conclusion.
What Matthew appears to be trying to teach as an alternative is that when disaster threatens, for some who take wise action there may be a way through.
Although other accounts may fail to highlight Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus as refugees, to fail to notice refugees is hardly a new phenomenon in the Bible lands. This is why Matthew’s account is a challenge for us today. Christmas with its tinsel, carols all adding to the Christmas shopping mall experience, not to mention piles of presents under the Christmas tree, all seemed designed to take us far from the challenges of the real world where many will miss out. Christmas is a time of joy – it is true – but don’t forget the joy is supposed to be that one has come with a message that can make a difference to the problems of the real world. We emerge from the Christmas celebrations where we rejoice at Jesus coming to address the problems – yet over the next few weeks we are reminded from his teaching that this addressing of problems is through the actions of his followers. We are hardly true to the message if we pretend that the problems are not there. Matthew does not shy away from that part of Christmas. Perhaps we might learn to do likewise.
Shortly before Christmas I watched a harrowing TV documentary about the plight of the refugees from the civil war in Syria attempting to survive an unseasonal vicious winter snow storm in makeshift shelters in Lebanon. There were the pictures of small children, clearly inadequately clothed trying to make their way through snow drifts wearing open sandals or simply in bare feet. The one house shown on the documentary had damaged cardboard walls and roof and everywhere there seemed to be misery. While it is true that there was concern that the Lebanese government appeared to be doing as little as possible for the refugees, it turned out that the Lebanese government were deliberately taking a hands off approach. Their reason was very simple. They had previously opened their borders to Palestinian refugees from Gaza when the Israelis had driven them out and had provided temporary shelter while they waited for aid promised by other countries. That was eleven years ago and all those other countries had failed to assist either with the provision of adequate resources or with offers of resettlement. Before we criticise the Lebanese ask what we were doing over that eleven year period.
Jesus may well have come as Messiah two thousand years ago but the joy at his coming should be interpreted as forced and artificial if it is not intended to make any difference to those who suffer today. And if they do continue to suffer, there is not much point in blaming Jesus if at the same time we as his followers are not doing our best to be his eyes and his hands in a world where pain continues to be part of the Christmas season. This of course should not be taken a judgement on all Christians today. In reality there are a good number who work tirelessly on behalf of those who suffer. On the other hand accepting responsibilities for doing something in response to the situations we encounter is individual in nature and just because someone in our immediate circle is doing something in response should not provide the excuse for total inaction on our behalf. We cannot be followers of the Christ child by proxy.
If we go back now to Matthew’s account of today’s gospel we might notice a strange twist at the end. We can certainly understand that the family of Jesus would have been reluctant to return to Bethlehem despite the death of Herod. By all accounts Herod’s son was every bit as ruthless as his father and it made perfect sense to settle further away in the little hillside town of Nazareth. The problem comes when Matthew, ever ready to find parallels for Jesus in the prophecies inserts the words: 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” (or in a number of translations “Nazarene”)
The truth of the matter, as William Barclay points out is that there is actually no such prophecy – or at least not in the part of the scriptures often referred to as the Old Testament.
On the other hand as Barclay reminds us, the ancient writers often used puns and plays on words. Accordingly Barclay suggests that here Matthew may be intentionally playing on the words of Isaiah in Isaiah 11:1 : “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The Hebrew word for branch is Nezer which in turn looks and sounds virtually identical to the Hebrew word for the word Nazarene which seems to have been Netser and which presumably means Matthew is saying for the scholars in his audience that at one and the same time that Jesus was from Nazareth (the Netser) while in another sense he was being Isaiah’s promised Branch or nezer from the stock of Jesse, the descendant of David, or if you like, the promised Anointed King of God.
It is an interesting metaphor which implies a question. If Jesus was indeed a branch from the stump of Jesse, how might we who wish to be part of his mission, become grafted into that same stump? Now that is a challenge for reflecting back on the Christmas season.
NOTE TO THE READER
A number of Church leaders have told me they are starting to use these sermons as a focus for House Group meetings and Bible studies. Because the sermons are designed partly to raise questions to take folk out of their comfort zones, any feedback from studies or group discussions (including corrections or obvious omissions) would probably be helpful to others and might spark further development of ideas. If you are using the posts as a starting point for discussion, you might like to check out the general posts on this web-site where topics like homosexuality, abortion, Bible literalism, bioethics, science and religion etc etc are introduced.