Sunday, 1 January 2017

on the slaughter of the Holy Innocents

I fall for it every year. While still basking in the afterglow of the Christmas festivities, I am brought up short by the horror of events in today's gospel reading — known as the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (Matthew 2.13-23). You'd think, by now, I'd have come to expect it and be ready for it. But no, each year I'm taken aback by having to preach on such a dark episode while we still celebrate the light and joy of Christmas. It is such uncomfortable reading. So what are we to make of it?

This year, our gospel readings will mainly come from Matthew, so it is worth saying a little bit about what distinguishes Matthew's gospel from the others.

Matthew was writing for a community of Christian Jews. And so, in some ways, it is the most Jewish of the gospels. For example, Matthew quotes the Old Testament more than any other gospel writer. And one of the things Matthew is trying to do in his gospel, is to portray Jesus as the new Moses — who, of course, led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, brought us the Ten Commandments, and so on.

Matthew makes this point by placing in parallel the story of Jesus with the story of Moses.

As Marcus Borg has written, Matthew gathers the teaching of Jesus into five major blocks of material, calling to mind the five Books of Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures. He locates the 'sermon of the mount' on a hilltop, unlike Luke's gospel where is is given on a flat plain. Why does he do this? To parallel Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Law, Jesus goes up a mountain to deliver his teaching.

In presenting the story of Jesus' birth, Matthew echoes the story of Moses' birth. Just as the life of Moses was threatened by Pharaoh's command that all male Hebrew babies be killed, so Jesus' life as an infant is threatened by King Herod's command that all male infants in the area of Bethlehem are to be killed. Matthew's meaning is clear. Jesus is like Moses, Herod is like Pharaoh, and what is happening in and through Jesus is like a new exodus.
— Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again For the First Time

In fact, there is no historical record of any such infant massacre taking place during the time of Herod's reign, meaning it was either very localised to the area around Bethlehem (too small to merit recording) or, as seems more likely, it's a literary device by Matthew to make a wider point.

This is not unusual is scripture, where myth, metaphor and symbolism are mixed with history to point to deeper truths. So, as usual, our job is to understand the deeper point that Matthew is leading us to.

The account of Pharaoh's slaughter of the male infants in the time of Moses, is one that has horrified both Jews and Christians over the centuries. A common reaction to that would be that a tyrannical Egyptian ruler who had enslaved a whole nation could very well do something as horrific as that, but of course we never would.

By bringing the same narrative into first century Palestine, Matthew shatters any kind of 'us' and 'them' division that his readers might have been tempted to set up. Such divisions are, after all, always arbitrary.

Given the right circumstances people just like us in this day and age are quite as capable of behaving as badly as Pharaoh or Herod.

That is a thought worth bearing in mind in the light of current Islamist terrorism. When you hear reports on the news of the latest atrocity, be appalled by all means. But be wary of any temptation to use such events to create divisions between 'us Christians' and 'those Muslims.' From the Crusades of the Middle Ages, through the horrors of the Inquisition, to the holocaust perpetrated by a developed Christian nation in the 20th century, 'us Christians' have demonstrated we are just as capable of such dark acts.

By making Herod the new Pharaoh, Matthew's gospel challenged his Jewish audience to see the capacity for darkness that exists in all humanity and to seek out the Christ who can lead us away from the tyranny of sin to new life in him.

Brian McLaren writes:

Herod — and Pharaoh before him — model one way of managing power: violence is simply one tool, used in varying degrees, to gain or maintain power. The baby whom Herod seeks to kill will model another way. His tool will be service. And his goal will not be gaining and maintaining power, but using his power to heal and empower others. He will reveal a vision of God that is reflected more in the vulnerability of children than in the violence of men, more in the caring of mothers than in the cruelty of Kings.
Brian D. McLaren, We Make The Road By Walking

Like Moses, Jesus emerges from exile in Egypt to lead his people away from darkness.

We may have done nothing as horrific as Herod, but do we understand the motivation for those things we do sometimes say and think and do?

Bishop Quodvultdeus of Carthage in the 5th century wrote that Herod destroyed those who were tiny in body because fear was destroying his heart.

Do we understand our own fear and the things it might cause us to say or do? Violence, as a way of gaining or maintaining power, can be found in words just as much as actions. When has fear caused you to say something you regret? When have you spoken harshly or untruthfully simply to score a win over another person? When have you been tempted to create an arbitrary us-and-them divide between you and another race or faith or tribe or category of people, just to make yourself feel superior? What would a Christian response sound like instead: one which, like Jesus, seeks to heal and empower the other?

As Moses led his people out of slavery in Egypt, so Jesus now offers to lead us away from all the dark thoughts of our hearts and mind that can enslave us and bring us to the light and love of God.

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