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.