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. Admittedly it is an otherworldly story of angels, the shepherds the wise men and of course a guiding star…a good story, filled with awe and wonder and even with a touch of magic.
Then suddenly Matthew switches the mood 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 neighborhood. Joseph and Mary are warned and flee with the baby Jesus to Egypt.
In this instance I think that many of the liberal scholars are talking sense when they claim Matthew’s story seems unlikely as literal history. In the first place 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 then 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 mid-rash or pious legend. Don’t forget 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 finding parallels with contemporary ages.
Since Matthew was talking of a time where ruthless rulers or invading forces exacted terrible punishment on the population we cannot be 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. Yet 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 those like 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 neighboring 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 prefer to believe about Matthew’s story of Herod, we have plenty of evidence to confirm to us that Herod was a dangerous neighbor. 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 observed 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.
Some scholars suspect that Matthew chose to stress the flight to Egypt because some of the prophecies that Matthew quoted drew a parallel between Jesus and Moses.
Remember:…..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 claim that major set-backs are the consequence of offending God is revisited by the religiously credulous time after time in the aftermath of each new major disaster. Yet notice 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.
Given the current refugee crisis in Europe, today’s gospel narrative should remind us that Jesus’ coming is not an automatic panacea for some age old issues . This is why Matthew’s account provides contemporary challenge. 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 actually miss out. Christmas is a time of joy for those with our advantages – 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 world’s problems – yet over the next few weeks we should remind ourselves that as good part of 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.
Even our support for the actions of the West should be tempered by the reminder that if we avert our eyes when our side supplies illegal weapons like the chemical weapons used against the Kurds, the white phosphorous the US used in Iraq and more recently the barrel bombs used by Saudi Arabia in the Yemen, we should not pretend that the refugees fleeing the destruction have nothing to do with us.
Those grim TV clips of wounded and dying children and absolute destruction of once peaceful city streets show the horrors described by Matthew are still part of our world. It is all very well to rejoice in the coming of Jesus – but sooner or later we have to remind ourselves that same Jesus is not expected to remain in the manger. Surely a good part of our valuing of the Christ child was for the message he brought. Jesus may well have come as Messiah two thousand years ago but the joy at his coming would 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.