The Story We Wish Wasn’t There
A good reason to follow the lectionary is that it forces us to hear passages of scripture we would rather avoid. This is one of those Sundays!
The gospel reading includes Matthew’s gruesome story of Herod’s order to slaughter all the boys under two years old in Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:16-18) Leon Cognate captured the horror in Scène du massacre des Innocents (“Scene of the Massacre of the Innocents”).
Who Was Herod?
Herod was a pathologically insecure narcissist who was obsessively driven by his fear of any threat to his position and power. (The Anchor Bible Dictionary , Vol. 3, p. 169)
No wonder he was “troubled” when the magi came looking for a newborn king. The more troubled he was the more troubling he became. It was instinctive behavior for Herod to lie in order to hold onto power. “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” (Matthew 2:8)
Joseph hardly needed an angel to tell him to get out of there! (Mathew 2:13) We found this carving of the Holy Family escaping to Egypt in a shop behind St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Durban, South Africa.
The artist makes his living by carving religious figures from discarded lumber and broken tree trunks. It portrays the reality of migrant families who flee from violence and oppression then and today.
Why does Matthew give Herod a leading role in the birth story in his gospel?
Matthew was a hard core realist. The former tax collector knew about financial corruption and political power. He drew a stark contrast between the kingdoms of this world ruled by the likes of Herod and Pilate vs the Kingdom of God reveled in Jesus. His gospel calls us to live that Kingdom-shaped life right now and to hold every political leader and system accountable to the biblical vision of social justice.
After disrupting our New Year’s football games with this painful story, Matthew gives a word of hope when he records, “After King Herod died…” (Matthew 2:19) Like every autocratic ruler, Herod “struts and frets his hour upon the stage /And then is heard no more.” (Macbeth, Act V) And when Herod was gone, Jesus was back! (Matthew 2:19-23) Herod couldn’t get rid of him and neither can we!
Jesus At the Border
Any preacher can find good reasons to find another text! But the headlines from the southern border and pictures in the news won’t allow us to escape it.
There’s no sign that Congress will come to agreemen on a workable immigration process any time soon. Presidential candidates will continue to turn the migrants into political pawns
But if we take the Old Testament prophets and the words of Jesus seriously, migrants seeking asylum are not primarily an issue; they are people. The beginning point for we who claim to be Christian is to see the Holy Family somewhere among the families who are sleeping on the streets of El Paso; to find the baby Jesus among the children who are being loading in buses carrying them across the country.
Living into Matthew’s story won’t solve all the issues around immigration, but it may change our hearts. Perhaps it will help us find a way to carve something beautiful out of discarded people and broken lives.
Grace, peace and hope for the New Year!