Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice
First Sunday of Christmas
Matthew 2. 13-23: The Empire strikes back
Begin by using the Method as outlined
What story of needless human suffering made the deepest impression on you during the Christmas period?
Reflection on the text
The wise men realised that Herod had no intention of tolerating a rival king, so they set off home without reporting back. Meanwhile, the child is in mortal danger so Joseph is warned that they too must leave straight away. They find asylum in Egypt, where they remain until the regime in Judea has changed. Herod acts quickly and ruthlessly, ordering the immediate killing of all the youngest boys to ensure that this ‘rival’ is ‘eliminated’.
Out of Egypt have I called my Son – Matthew sees Jesus as a second Moses, and Herod as the new pharaoh who tried in vain to kill the one who will return from Egypt to lead God’s new order of justice and peace. He also recalls words of Jeremiah about Ramah (where Rachel was buried, near Bethlehem) – the scene of a past massacre of Jews, on their way to exile in Babylon, and now a ‘silent witness’ to another tragedy, weeping in sorrow, anger and outrage at Herod’s monstrous action.
We are too familiar today with political leaders who act with ruthless determination to crush all opposition to stay in power.
Stories of the abuse of political power, of refugees and asylum seekers, familiar day-to-day news, all raise questions for us.
- Should we intervene as a nation where serious abuse of power takes place? e.g. Iraq, Burma, Iran, Pakistan etc. Should Christians support military action or be calling for non-violent alternatives?
- Given that Jesus was a refugee, should we welcome refugees into our country? Should there be limits and safeguards?
- Share what you know about asylum seekers in your area. Have you ever asked them to tell you their story? What attitude does your wider community have towards them? Who is helping them? What might your Christian community do to welcome and help them?
Light a candle and say: ‘Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world “‘.
Reflect in silence on what you have shared today.
Pray for situations where there is abuse of power and injustice, saying together after each petition:
‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’.
Jesus said, “You are the light of the world”. Pray that Christ’s light will shine in one dark place this week through you.
More background information
One cannot escape the irony in these first two chapters of Matthew.
Firstly, God is with us in Jesus yet we find him and his parents fleeing for their lives from a ruthless dictator. The saviour of the world is in need of being saved.
Here is the ‘servant’ who suffers with his people, the self-emptying Lord so beautifully portrayed in Philippians 2: 5ff. Jesus enters a world of pain, darkness and oppression. There is no evasion of the depths of human suffering in the incarnation.
This is not one of those cosy pictures that so often grace our sanitised Christmas cards but one of looming danger and threat leading to the senseless bloody massacre of innocent children in Bethlehem. This child is perceived as a threat to Herod’s regime. Jesus’ very presence threatens the powerful.
We do well to reflect on Jesus the refugee, the homeless, the status-less peasant and our own response to the global refugee crisis. If Jesus were among refugees in our community would we welcome him? For more up to date information on refugees go to The United Nations Refugee Agency website at http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home. Also http://www.ninemillion.org/, which highlights the sobering fact that of the 21 million refugees in the world nearly half are children.
Secondly, Gentile wise men travel a great distance to worship the Christ child born a Jew, yet the Jewish king seeks his destruction. Let’s remember that by no means did all the ‘Jews’ reject Jesus. Matthew’s community was probably made up of a significant number of Jewish converts.
Warren Carter, in his book Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-political and Religious Reading (p 73) says:
(Matthew) Chapter 2 contrasts two responses to God's initiative.
(1) The empire strikes back as Herod, Rome's vassal king, and Jerusalem's settled elite of chief priests and scribes respond negatively. Herod employs military, religious, and social resources and strategies to thwart God's work. His murderous actions, allied with the inaction of the religious elite, demonstrate the oppressive structures from which Jesus is to save the world (1:21).
(2) The new creation expands through unlikely people who embrace God's purposes: the very mobile magi, Gentiles who have neither power nor valued knowledge, witness to the dawning of God's new age. And the non-elite and mobile Joseph and Mary receive angelic revelations, guard the life of "the child," and protect the divine purposes against Herod. God's purposes prevail with Herod's death, though the ominous phrase "Archelaus reigned ... in the place of his father" (2:22) warns the audience that the pernicious threat of empire is omnipresent for a marginal community of disciples.
These responses are sometimes falsely presented as a contrast between "rejecting Jews" and "believing Gentiles." The role of Joseph and Mary, and Herod's origin as an Idumean, clearly indicate that this division is not convincing. Rather the division consists of a socio-political dynamic between the powerful settled centre (Herod, the religious elite) and the apparently powerless, insignificant, and mobile margins (magi, Joseph and Mary).