Hacking King Herod (Matthew 2:13-23)

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This scripture is about genocide, refugees, and power  In this way, it is also front page news.  I do not mean genocide as a conspiracy theory.  I mean the modern day version; thousands of years before television cameras could cover such suffering.   All of this, not happening to nameless people on the news, but to the child who we worship as the Savior of the world.   To be honest, we have a dog in this fight. Our sweet baby Jesus was a refugee torn born into homelessness and taken into statelessness.  Our story compels us to care for Christians, Muslims, and refugees of all faiths.

To say these verses are about one thing is to sell the passage short.  It is not about the wise men or their three symbolic gifts.  I can’t clean this up, make it funny, draw a cute analogy, or somehow turn it around into an inspirational life lesson on the power of awesome New Year’s Resolutions.  That’s because my conscience won’t let me do it, the text is clear, and current events have brought the past, present, and future together-in this reading.  It is what it is.

 

At first glance, this story appears to be all about the Wise Men.  We don’t even know there were three.  The Bible doesn’t say, “There were three wise men”.  Look anywhere you want, it’s not there.  We assume, because three gifts were presented, there must have been three people.  That’s a pretty weak assumption.  There could have been five of fifteen.  The number of gifts didn’t have to correlate to the number of people.  Again, something we’ve made up (3 guys at the stable on the night of Jesus’ birth), which didn’t happen but most people would swear is the gospel truth.  The guys, probably more than one didn’t arrive until perhaps 2 years after Jesus was born.  At Christmas and Epiphany, we compress time to tell a story but we sometimes play with the facts because we’re in a hurry to open presents.   That makes me nervous because if we’ll believe on tiny thing about the Bible that’s not there, who knows what else we might be led to embrace.

The Wise Men are minor characters, providing a backdrop and context to what King Herod already believes.  Herod knows he’s unpopular, overly dependent on Rome, and living on borrowed time.  The Wise Men show up and give fuel to his already anxious ego that his life and power are threatened from all sides.  In Herod’s mind, the information he’s received from the Wise Men and his own theologians/advisors can only point to one thing:  a revolution to overthrow him beginning in Bethlehem.  Herod will do anything to survive.  Does he understand he’s dealing with a child?  Children are powerful symbols of hope, particularly those supported by interpretation of important scriptures.  He will take no chances.

Herod bears all the hallmarks of a fascist imperial dictator, in the model of his Roman overlords.  What will he do to stay in power?  First, he manipulates the control and dissemination of information.  Look at Matthew 2:8.  He tells the Wise Men disinformation, propaganda, something other than his true intentions.  He plants a fake news story.  “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.”  That’s step one.

The second step occurs earlier in the chapter.  Herod reads the religious texts, interpreted by the scribes and the Pharisees, literally.  If the Bible said “ruler”, it could only mean a ruler as he was a “ruler”, in the full kingly sense of the word.  This overly literal reading of scripture would lead to thousands of innocent people dying.

Herod must control both information and people for his plans to succeed.    In contrast, Jesus and his family have control of nothing.  They are solely dependent on God’s direction.  They can’t count on the Wise Men.  Funny how they don’t offer them asylum in their country or shelter them somewhere to the east? They are gone in an instant and nowhere when you need a friend; that’s the wise men.

Herod’s plan was simple: kill anyone who fit the description of the new ruler as defined by the scripture (it happened to be from the book of Micah) the Chief Priests and Scribes gave to Herod.  This means all male children under the age of two.  How could Herod be certain he killed the right child unless he killed all the children?  It is illegal in Jewish law, at this time, for a death sentence to be passed without a sentence being handed down from the Sanhedrin, that is, a court.  The dictator Herod, the fascist, has no use for the rule of law.  It’s called genocide and just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t make it any less horrific.

Joseph receives better information than the Wise Men.  Did you notice this?  This story, the survival of Jesus hinges on the flow of timely and accurate information.    It’s important to tell God’s story as well as we can.  An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him of Herod’s plans.  Joseph hears the truth.  I know it’s easy to miss the angels in our lives but who pays attention to their dreams?  Before Freud introduced the idea, Joseph was listening to his subconscious.  Here’s where listening becomes important.  “Get up, take the child to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”  Two words jump straight out this verse.  Herod is on a search and destroy mission.  This will be a house to house search to destroy those he fears most:  children.  Jesus, our Lord and Savior, become a refugee.  In the middle of the night, he and his family flee their country.  That’s a big deal.

Herod eventually realizes the Wise Men have skipped town.  Without the cover of their legitimacy, he has no reason to feign mercy?  At once, the slaughter begins.  The Bible is clear, “He sent and killed all the children in around Bethlehem who were two years old or under according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.”  What do we do with this kind of horror?

Matthew tells us these actions fulfilled something Jeremiah wrote six hundred years before Jesus, Mary, Joseph, or King Herod were born.  He quotes Jeremiah 31:15.  It’s a passage in which Jeremiah refers to the removal of the people of Judah to Babylon as captives.  Ramah is where the captives were gathered prior to their physical removal to Babylon.  Jeremiah is asking Rachel (an ancestor to both he and Jesus) to weep for her descendents as they are deported.  It works but it doesn’t fit.  Jeremiah wasn’t talking about mass, genocidal slaughter of children.  He was, however, referring to the mass exile of the people of Judah.  Jeremiah didn’t have Jesus in mind when he wrote those words.

What was Matthew thinking by quoting Jeremiah?  Why try to explain away, with scripture, the actions of a genocidal madman?  One or two verses of scripture, taken out of context, shouldn’t justify the deaths of countless children?  What’s most troubling about this passage is the appearance of divinely ordained and God sanctioned death.   How many innocent people died in the wake of the Wise Men’s visit?  In order for Jesus to be saved, that’s even strange to say, “Save Jesus” (we usually say it the other way around), innocent people had to die.  It’s the exact opposite of salvation.  In Matthew 2, God appears to allow innocent children to die while forcing Jesus and his family to become refugees, and leaving Herod on the throne for a few more years.  I think it’s wrong for Matthew to use scripture and send the idea that God kills innocent people.  If that’s who God really is, I’m not sure that’s the God I want to worship.  It’s a message to us:  we need to be careful about what actions we do and do not attribute to God.  In 2017, everything good thing that happens to us won’t be the result of God’s will.  Nor will the bad things be signs of evil working in our lives.  Sometimes our days just stink.

For all of his very real flaws, what was Matthew trying to do?  Matthew had Moses on the brain.  For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses.  He’s sent to re-deliver the Israelite people from bondage.  His whole book is built around this theme.  The Sermon on the Mount, that’s your new 10 commandments.  Moses came out of Egypt and entered the Promised Land.  If Jesus is the new Moses, Matthew needs to tell this story in a way that shows Jesus coming out of Egypt, as a savior and lawgiver, just like Moses.    This is why I believe much of Matthew 2 is parable designed to show Jesus in this light.  The book’s stories and themes resonated with Matthew’s Jewish audiences in ways Christian readers still don’t understand.  It’s a story about the boy, being persecuted by a modern day pharaoh, who comes back home from Egypt to make things right.    It’s a mish-mash of ideas and stories designed to show this one child as the successor to Moses.

Is it history or parable?  Maybe it’s a little bit of both.  It is a cautionary tale about unchecked political power, the misuse of information, foreign diplomats influencing local kings, genocide, and refugees.  We are reminded that the distance between here and there is not very long indeed.  It is a story of what happens when we paint a picture of God with too broad a brush and don’t ask the right questions when we’re done.  Does this picture really look like the God we love?  If not, then we need to go back to Sunday School. Ultimately, it’s a parable about Israel, Moses, Jesus, freedom, liberation, and God’s ongoing work to bring salvation into the darkest corners of the human soul.

New Year’s Resolutions Are Lies We Tell Ourselves

Start on January 1

You can buy into the propaganda machine found on countless websites and self-help books encouraging readers to make life changing New Year’s Resolutions.  If stereotyped formulas are your thing, go right ahead.  January 1st is right around the corner.

There is no such thing as a “New Year’s Resolution”.  They are lies.  Believing that through will power, lists, and simplistic decisions you’ll make better choices for the coming year is a one of the many falsehoods Americans allow themselves to believe.  These particular lies coincide with the arrival of the New Year.  In our minds, this seems like a good time to start something new like a diet or exercise program.  We couldn’t be more wrong.  If we wanted to live better we would have started it yesterday.  Our lives should matter more than an arbitrary date and the conclusion of a night of drunken debauchery.

The New Year’s “resolution” concept, it’s in our heads.  It’s an excuse we create to delay change and ultimately explain our failure.  New Year’s Resolutions are fictions we tell to comfort our inevitable return to the status quo.

Don’t lie to yourself.  If you want to change, change.  Altering your life has no relationship to the mass delusion surrounding the significance of New Year’s Day.  January 1st means nothing more than August 12th.  The lemming train is boarding at the resolution station.  There are cars for chocolate, diet, exercise, time with family, and so on.  You can hop on the cultural bandwagon anytime you like.  It will be boarding over the next four days.  People will talk at length about the lies they’ll willingly begin telling themselves at the start of the New Year.  You’ll notice that people love to talk about their resolutions.  You don’t have to talk about anything.  Bore no one with your weight loss goals or stories of how “this year will be the year you make it”.   No one cares.  No one wants to hear about your resolution.   Why?  Because no one likes being lied to.  Live better, be better-today.

January 1st can go to Hell for all I care.

Why Does Celebrating the Birth of Jesus Matter?

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It is a good and joyful thing to no longer live in fear.

For freedom from fear and in response to this great joy, we give you thanks to you, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.  Amen.

Why does the story of how God was conceived and born matter at all?  I’m asking this question both within the Christian vacuum and in the wider culture at large.  Does remembering the birth of Christ impact the practice of Christianity?  What do we mean when we talk about Jesus?  One day Jesus isn’t part of human history and the next day, culture is unable to be defined by any means that doesn’t include Jesus. For this we must look to our old friend “context”.

Stories of divine dalliances with humans and demigods were the bread and butter of Greek and Roman religious practice.  Gods impregnated young girls all the time through any number of means.  Children were born.  This wasn’t scandalous or earth shattering.  It was different, however, that it would happen among the Jews.  And despite his humble and relatively anonymous origins, the child would be described in the same language and manner as the Emperor of Rome, who everyone already accepted was the son of God.  With Jesus’ birth, there came a notion that someone had to be wrong.  Gods, however many there might be, did not coexist in some eternal cosmic plane.  The exclusive religious claims made by and for Caesar were made on his behalf and for his descendants alone.   Caesar Augustus was the Savior of the World, the Son of God, Light from Light, and True God from True God.  There could not be two. Someone had to be wrong.

However, if you’ve lived in a world where you been prepared to accept one person as the Son of God (and that person turns out to be a privileged rich guy in Rome who also leads a large army) and now there’s an alternative Son of God and Savior of the World to consider, the idea doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary?  The “Good News” while startling and amazing in presentation, isn’t that far out the religious mainstream; as far as language goes.  The concept of a person with divine inspired names and titles who saves humanity has been floating around the ether for some time now.  It’s part of the “context” of how we think about religion and religious people.   Jesus’ birth matters, not because of what the angels say or even how they say it.  There’s nothing amazing about the content of their message.  What makes this event remarkable is the location.

It’s like giving books to a group of people without teaching them how to read.  The message shared is shared in an unlikely place among people who seem least likely to appreciate the impact or context.  It will be lost on the shepherds, sky watchers, and Bethlehem’s other night owls.  Or so it would seem.  Jesus’ birth matters because it is so out of place.  Things that are out of place stand out for all the wrong reasons.  The religious language of Jesus’ birth may have been contextual but it couldn’t have been more out of place.  Sons of God don’t pop up from desert lands on the cross roads between east and west.  Square pegs don’t fit into round holes.  Announcements of this sort, however contextual and appropriate to the religious scene, draw negative attention when their spoken from the wrong place.  Can’t, shouldn’t, and wouldn’t are the words which most easily come to mind.  The birth of Jesus is important because it runs against the religious grain, while using that very grain as a way to destroy the grain of the tree from which it grew.  That tree, the Roman religious tree, had roots everywhere.  Within four hundred years of Jesus’ birth, there would come a day when no one alive would remember what it was like to worship Apollo, make offerings to Jupiter, or deify an Emperor or his children.  That change would happen overnight.  The way lives had been lived for hundreds upon hundreds of years would come to an end.  It was believed to be a physical impossibility because of Rome’s financial, military, social, cultural, and political might.  A day came when no one remembered the rituals of the past.  One event changed centuries of “how things used to be done” living.  This is why Jesus’ birth matters.

Whether or not you choose to accept it, we are comfortable with how things are currently done.  We are well pleased with our version of the status quo.  Like our ancient Roman ancestors and those who watched the sky that first Christmas night, we believe it’s going to go on like this forever.  Nothing is ever going to change.  The ground is solid under our feet.  A day will never come when people will not remember how it used to be.  Like them, we are wrong.  Jesus’ birth is important because it reminds us of how wrong we are.

What are we wrong about?  I think we take the essence of Christmas for granted.  The incarnation, a big word meaning God becoming human, gets lost among the songs, chants, and decorations.  We’re on autopilot and we forget.   Jesus is not like Caesar.  Jesus is not a person who made himself God.  Our assertion is simple:  Jesus is God.  This aspect of his identity, arriving among our sorry lot as God, defines Christmas.  When we miss this point, there’s no point in calling this a religious holiday or bothering to involve churches.  Refer to the season as the Winter Solstice Month or Gift Giving Month.  But really, there’s no need to include Jesus.

Jesus’ birth matters because it helps us figure out how to make things more right than the present demands.  If we’re wrong, this event gives us a framework, an idea, and a clue to what makes might lead us toward taking less for granted.  Jesus’ birth helps us see the bigger picture.  The words and the songs need to come off the page and form an image; and by that I don’t mean the image you think you know.  By this, I mean an image that leads us from here to somewhere else; an image that connects and gives meaning to this event and the wider world.

Jesus’ birth isn’t the end of the map, contrary to the Wise Men’s protestations.  Jesus’ birth marks a starting point, not a place to admit our exhaustion with decorating and entertaining.  Herod is coming and genocide is on his mind.  He means to kill this child, his family, and all like him.  Jesus’ birth is important because it points a way toward hope through the death round the corner.  If I want anything for Christmas, I want to know where I can find hope amid the real, honest to God, living and breathing, bent on genocide King Herods still lurking about our world.  I find that hope in celebrating the birth of Jesus.