January 1, 2016 Slaughter of Innocents
The lectionary does not give us long to enjoy the wondrous silent night of the angels song does it?
Nope, just one week later the Lectionary throws at us for our post Christmas Day story the rather chillingly titled “Slaughter of the Innocents. Proves again the purpose of having the lectionary – left to my own devices I never would have selected a story of wholesale massacre of toddlers for the post Christmas gospel. But there it is and we have to deal with it.
In an episode of the TV series “M*A*S*H”, two doctors and a nurse desperately try to keep a fatally wounded soldier from dying on Christmas Day just so the man’s wife and children back home don’t have to forever after celebrate Christmas and their husband and father’s death. But the man dies anyway, just before midnight, so Dr. Pierce moves the clock hands forward twenty minutes and then puts “December 26” on the death certificate. “No child should have to connect Christmas to death” he says in defense of his unethical faking of a medical record.
No child, unless you lived in Bethlehem just over 2000 years ago – or if you are in church on the first Sunday of Christmas in year A. And it is disproportionally the civilians who are the victims in modern warfare and of them disproportionately women and children.
When I was a youngster and we heard the flight into Egypt part of this story it was just a bit of a rollicking adventure. Sure it was the shadow side to Christmas, but it had just enough of the hint of danger to only make Mary and Joseph a bit more heroic and added a bit more tension to the story. When we read it or heard it told it was invariably without the cold blooded slaughter of toddlers though! We certainly never thought “Hey Mary and Joseph and Jesus forced to flee their own country out of fear of persecution… that would make them… refugees! Maybe they could have ended up in Australia”!
So what have we got with this sordid little story confronting us today? And is there any good news, any gospel to be found in it? Well we said a couple of weeks ago that the great burden of Matthew’s gospel is to show that Jesus is truly the fulfiller of the promises of God. Matthew wants to stir up national memories as part of his presentation of Jesus as the fulfiller of the promises of God made through the ancient prophets of a deliverer, a savior, to arise and lead the people to freedom and salvation.
Matthew pretty much sees in Jesus another but greater Moses. In Moses’ story an infant was spared so that a leader could be born to save his people. In Jesus’ story, the “new Moses” was spared so that the savior who has just been born can grow to the adult who will save and heal and lead his people to freedom.
Jesus is the fulfiller of prophecies right through Matthew’s gospel. In this part of the story three prophecies that particularly concerned him stated that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David; that the Messiah would be called out of Egypt, as Moses was; and that the Messiah would be know as a Nazarene. Three separate prophecies that appeared to have no obvious connection. The story of Herod’s cruelty allowed Matthew to move Jesus from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth in a way that made sense.
You may be wondering by now… so is this a made up story? Well we don’t use the words, “made up” cos it gives the impression of fabricated whimsy. The author of Matthew is a far more serious, theologically and biblically informed writer to be so easily dismissed. But to cut to the chase, Yes many scholars do conclude that Matthew’s gospel has developed this story in order to allow these ancient prophecies to be fulfilled by the One who was born to fulfill our deepest longings. While Herod was an insanely egotistical murderer perfectly capable of an atrocity described in today’s reading there is no external source that gives credence to this murderous episode. It is true to Herod’s nature, it is true to the worst of human nature, it does make a profound truth about Jesus, it does witness to the timeless truth that despite the wickedness of humanity nothing can hijack God’s good purpose for the world – in all those senses this is a true story. Did it historically happen this way? Probably not, but it remains a “true” story.
Why is it Rachel’s weeping that cannot be consoled?
Remember Rachel? Jacob loved her more than her sister Leah, but after 7 years of service to their father he was tricked into marrying Leah and had to work a second long 7 year term to get to marry Rachel. Then Rachel could not bear children while Leah produced many. Rachel being no timid shrinking violet confronts both God and Jacob with the cry “Give me children or I die”. She does finally have a child, a son (as you want!) who became the famous Joseph and everyone is happy. Another son follows, named by Rachel who is dying in child birth Benoni, son of my sorrow. This is too painful for Jacob to be daily reminded of this tragedy and he renames the lad, Benjamin – son of my right hand. A bit easier for father and son to bear throughout later life but Rachel is effectively silenced for ever now. Or was she?
For a 1,000 years Rachel lies in her tomb near Bethlehem until a day the towering prophet Jeremiah watches Babylonian soldiers cart his people, the children of Israel, off to exile. Jeremiah who knew a thing or two about grief and anguish and unfilled visions and abandonment and isolation calls upon this mother of the nation to join him in lament for the desolation of her children and of the nation. To raise her voice from beyond the grave and add it to the cries of the people that can know no consolation.
So there is great cost for some in pursuing the way of God.
Not just for those actively and knowingly following Jesus but still in Darfur, Palestine, Burma, Iraq children are disproportionately those who pay the price for something embedded in human nature that resists the way of peace.
State-sponsored terrorism still happens today. The result is the slaughter of the innocents.
When someone is beaten in a hate crime, it is a slaughter of the innocents.
When smart bombs are not smart enough to distinguish between soldiers and children in Syria or Iraq, the innocents are slaughtered.
When we detain people because of their race or their accent, the innocents are slaughtered.
The only good news we can get out of today’s story – but it is enough- is that despite the worst humanity can produce God’s way will not be silenced nor averted.
The savior is saved in today’s reading, so we can be saved. The violence is done to those poor innocent children in today’s reading, and to the Savior when he grows to adulthood but he refuses to return hate for hate, violence for violence. This is God’s way and the gospel tells us it will prevail upon earth.