January 3, 2021, the second Sunday after Christmas
The Hard Truths of Scripture
Alleluia, unto us a child is born. Come let us adore him, Alleluia.
What do we know about the early life of Jesus? Matthew and Luke give us birth narratives with different details and emphases. Luke tells us about Jesus being circumcised when he was a week old and about his adventure in the Temple when he was an adolescent. Other than those stories, all we know about Jesus’ early life is in these verses from Matthew. The lectionary suggests that we omit the middle verses of this passage, the story of Herod ordering the murder of all children aged 2 or under in Bethlehem. We call this story the Massacre of the Innocents, and it is horrific. I can see why we might want to gloss over it.
Who wants to hear of such horrors on a Sunday morning in church? I have met people who have rejected the church, who have rejected Christianity altogether, because of offensive language or horrendous evil that the Bible describes. If this is a handbook for how to behave, the reasoning goes, the inclusion of terrible acts is inappropriate; the God of love should not be found in such company.
I disagree. The Bible tells the story of the people of God, and sometimes the people of God behave really badly, sometimes even, although not in this passage, in the name of God. We are not being true to our faith if we try to sweep that bad behavior under the rug. And when we read of the murderous efforts of those in power to eliminate a threat to that power, we are brought straight to a central message of the Gospel: the way of love is a threat to entrenched power. It may seem ridiculous for a king to be afraid of a baby, but the very act of ordering the massacre tells us that at some level Herod and his henchmen knew that their grip on power was fragile and unjust, that the birth of this child, in an insignificant corner of an occupied country, could change the world and bring them down.
These verses are the beginning of a thread that runs all the way to the Cross. By preaching truth, love and inclusion, Jesus filled the hearts of the powerful with fear, and they enacted their fear in violence, trying repeatedly to discredit and trick Jesus, and ultimately plotting his death. A frightened tyrant is a dangerous thing, and fear is at the bottom of humanity’s most shameful actions. As disturbing as the Massacre of the Innocents may be, it casts an important light on the whole Gospel story, and we should not avoid it.
If you have been tempted to reject the Bible for its violence and injustice, I hope you will hang in there: the challenging and uncomfortable parts may turn out to be our most effective teachers about human nature and the challenges of faith.
In this part of the Gospel, Matthew tells us that the holy family faced tremendous challenges, challenges that families across the world face today. Jesus and his parents lost their home: they became political refugees, fleeing to another country to escape government persecution. The holy family ultimately found their way to a new home, but those years in Egypt cannot have been easy, and the return to Nazareth must have been fraught with anxiety. The millions of people across the world today who have involuntarily left home must see their own reflections in this story. 80 million of our brothers and sisters have been displaced from their homes, by tyranny, war, famine, drought, or grinding poverty. Don’t you see them in the Gospel?
Now, I know there are good and faithful people who don’t want to hear about politics in church. I understand the impulse to seek escape from hard truths, but Scripture doesn’t allow us that luxury. Who can read this part of the Gospel and not see clear parallels with the politics of our own age? Don’t you see the connection with abused and abandoned children, with homeless families in our own cities, with refugees fleeing across borders? Jesus was born into the midst of a messy and tragic world, very like the world we live in. He was one of those people we’d rather not think about on Sunday mornings. And, his childhood experience must have scarred him and fueled the passion he brought to his mission of transformation: it is an essential element of who he was.
Last fall I was interviewed by a USD scholar about homelessness in San Diego, and this week I received a summary of her paper, which speaks at some length of the stigma that is widely attached to homelessness. We talk of “the homeless” as if they are a different species; people complain about mess or crime or noise in their neighborhoods and readily blame homeless people for all inconveniences. Property owners organize against having low-income or transitional housing built in their neighborhoods. City ordinances prohibit RVs or people sleeping in vehicles.
We are too ready to overlook the fact that many, many people lose their homes in spite of having a full-time job; that there are children in our schools whose families sleep in their car or on a relative’s sofa; that the shortage of residential mental health facilities forces sick people out onto the streets. Poverty is not something that you deserve: it is something that happens to you.
And unsheltered people are invisible to the people who make political decisions in our communities. The scholar I talked to wrote of interviewing a dozen elected officials from around San Diego County, and of hearing every single one of them say that before they were elected they knew almost nothing about homelessness and, moreover, that it wasn’t an issue in the election; however, once they were elected it became the single most urgent issue before them.
Maybe we are electing the wrong people: maybe we need to elect people who have been unsheltered, who have been afflicted by addiction and mental illness, who have suffered and been invisible and overlooked by the rich and the comfortable. Maybe we need to look for Jesus in the marginalized people around us. Maybe the way of love is to be found by lifting up the lowly and meek and casting down the mighty from their thrones.
One last thought: Joseph had the responsibility of caring for Jesus and his mother. The weight of that responsibility is hard to imagine, under the circumstances. Matthew tells us that an angel appeared to Joseph four times in dreams, and gave him instructions that protected the holy child. Joseph stands as a model of obedience: he listened, and he did as he was told. But he also used his own common sense: he discerned that it wasn’t safe to return to Judea, and he took the initiative to settle instead in Nazareth.
We hear very little about Joseph in the Gospels, so let’s give him his due: he was willing to keep Mary as his wife, showing great courage in the face of all the evidence and going against the ethics of his time; he was faithful and humble enough to repeatedly discern God’s voice and to obey; and he was wise enough to apply his own reason to the situation and make prudent choices for his family. It’s no wonder that St. Joseph is honored as a model father and foster parent.
On Wednesday we will close out the festive season with a special Epiphany service of Lessons and Carols, and we will leap ahead in the Gospel story to the account of Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his adult ministry. As we travel through this year with Mark’s Gospel, don’t forget what Matthew has told us about the perilous beginning of Jesus’ life: if we are attentive to the people around us we will find plenty of reminders of the cruelty and brokenness of our own world, so clearly reflected in these ancient verses and in the life of our Saviour.
Alleluia, unto us a child is born. Come let us adore him, Alleluia.