The historical facts of the Gospel reading today are not much in dispute. Most scholars agree that this story of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem never happened. If this view is correct, it brings us some relief in the face of a text that seems to offer little good news. Matthew tells us that “in a furious rage,” Herod “sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under.” No matter what the number of children this might have been, it suggests a moment of horrific cruelty that all of us can be grateful never actually happened.
But it is an odd thing to reflect on some element of the Christmas story and decide that the good news is that it isn’t true. I accept at face value the scholars’ and historians’ view that the episode of the flight into Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents never really happened, but I stop well short of concluding that these facts mean that the story is not true. Indeed, I would say that there is deep truth to be found in these few verses of Matthew’s Gospel. But at face value it can still be hard for the modern person to find good news in them: thank God that Matthew made up a story that never happened! It’s hard to turn this into a Christmas carol, though.
But maybe we need to look at the text generically, rather than specifically. What it tells us is that a rich and powerful ruler was more than willing to wreak horrible cruelty, bloodshed, and murder on the most vulnerable of his society in order to protect his position of power. Put that sentence in any tense. Apply it to any era of history, including our current day; and tell me that it is not true!
Rich and powerful rulers have in the past and continue today to be willing to wreak horrible cruelty, bloodshed, and even murder upon the most vulnerable of society. That the most vulnerable may be defenseless children is meaningless to them. This is not a description of the ancient world only, it is a description of the world we live in. Any presentation of modern evidence I could summarize here would be both too ugly and too short to do justice to the actually cruelty, bloodshed, and murder visited upon innocent children. So if you don’t believe that my assessment is true, try this exercise: go find someone with a political outlook that is at the polar opposite end of the spectrum from yours, and ask them whether or not my proposition is true, ask them whether or not innocents are slaughtered in the midst of own era at the hands of the powerful and the rich. I think you will find that the person whose outlook so differs from your own will also see examples of the innocent being slaughtered where you or I might not find them – and they’d be right.
So I think the story of the slaughter of the innocents is profoundly true. When you rap on it, it does not sound hollow, rather it echoes down through the ages with a horrible ring of truth to it: children slaughtered at the hands of violent, greedy men. But I am still short of good news. So we have to look deeper, accepting the story on its own terms.
Matthew’s writing, or maybe the translation, is a little misleading here because of the order in which things come. If you are not paying careful attention it looks as though Matthew is saying that Herod goes into a furious rage about being tricked because the Holy Family makes their escape into Egypt. But actually, this is not what Matthew says. He is clear that Herod’s rage stems from his discovery that he has been tricked by the wise men – who never actually return to Herod to bring him details about the identity and location of the new born king, as they said they would. Herod does not know that Mary and Joseph and Jesus have escaped. He believes that the child must still be in Bethlehem. And he carefully works out, given the limited information he has from the wise men, that if he wants to be sure to eliminate any rival to his power, the cut-off will have to be two-year-olds, because, he works out, the baby might have been born at any time in the past two years. Presumably he rounded up, just to be sure.
So when he sends his henchmen into Bethlehem to do their dastardly work, and they bring him word that it is done, the blood still dripping from their swords, Herod thinks that he has won. He thinks that he is safe, and he thinks he has prevailed.
No good news yet. So far only the angels really know the good news, since they are the only ones who know where Mary and Joseph and Jesus have gone. So far to everyone else it looks as though the rich and powerful have prevailed, and that God’s will has been thwarted. And now we are getting close to Matthew’s point in telling the story.
Matthew doesn’t much care if the facts are unfounded in historical actuality. He knows that it has always been true that rich and powerful men have been willing to use brutal force against the weak in order to keep their power and their wealth, and Matthew knows that it will continue to be true for a while. So he knows there is truth at the heart of the story he is telling even though his facts don’t square with history.
But Matthew wants to us to see that Herod is wrong: he doesn’t even know how he has been tricked – he thinks it’s the wise men who have tricked him, when actually the Holy Family is on their way to Egypt. Herod doesn’t even know that his cruelty has accomplished nothing, as he looks with satisfaction at the blood-spattered uniforms of his henchmen. He foolishly believes that he has vanquished his rival. And he is completely and utterly wrong.
Matthew wants us to see the truth. He wants us to see both that God’s will prevails, and that the cruel who protect their power by bloody might don’t even know it when thy have lost. But he wants us to know it, too. Matthew is winking at us, his audience, the entire time he is telling this part of the story – to make sure we get the point that he is making. Does it look as though the powers of darkness have prevailed? Are they looking self-satisfied as they lick their bloody chops? Well, you and I know better! says Matthew with a wink!
A few decades later, Jesus himself, now grown up, will be surrounded by men who came from nothing, but who have hitched themselves to Jesus for various reasons. From time to time it will occur to them that maybe there will be a pay-off of power and wealth if they hang in with this guy. They are heard asking him, “what then shall we have?” and, “which of us will be greatest when you are king?” And when their minds are carried away with these thoughts they will shoo children away from Jesus, because, after all, children are in the way, and they are weak and defenseless.
And Jesus will stop them from their shooing, and halt them in their dreaming of power and wealth. And he will stoop down on one knee and beckon a recently scolded child to him, and take him in his arms. Maybe the child is a boy, only two years old?
And he tells them to let children come to him, he tells them that the kingdom of heaven belongs to children, he tells them that if you receive a child, you receive him, and vice versa. He shows them that the weak and vulnerable are dearer to his heart than those who believe they are on the way to the show, the pay-off, the jack-pot.
Since we live in an age when the slaughter of innocents has not yet come to an end – and all the facts, I contend support this conclusion across a long swath of history – we might be tempted, especially in the face of this sad story from the Gospels, to think that the powers of darkness are prevailing or have prevailed. But if we reach that conclusion, then we have failed to notice that Matthew is winking to us when he tells us of Herod’s rage. And we may fail to see Herod for the loser that he is, if we think, as he did, that his cruel and bloody plot had taken care of everything that needed taking care of.
But the Gospel tells us that God’s will does prevail, even when cruel men appear to have won and are too stupid to know that they have lost. Because they cannot see the power of God beneath the chubby folds of baby fat, coming from somewhere unexpected, with an unwed mother and a blue-collar father.
Look up, and see the evangelist winking at you and at me, as if to assure us that the details of the cruelty hardly matter – you can fill in the blanks with your own, that’s what he did – what matters is that the will of God will prevail, and Christ will come again and again, and keep coming into the world till at last all children are safe.
Pray, God, do it soon!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
28 December 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia