Home by another way

Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12, 13-18

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
   who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

The Queen and Prince Phillip once spent the night on Hamilton Downs with my Auntie Dawn and Uncle Bill. Dawn told my mum that the Queen took off her gloves, sat on the edge of the bed, and said, "Oh Dawn, it's been such a long day!" Auntie Dawn was charmed by her ordinary decency— she was nice. I wonder if, after some 70 years of this surprisingly ordinary and decent woman as Queen— despite all her privilege, we can have any idea of what the story of the Magi meant, and how unutterably unlike our nativity plays the story really is.

The Magi are not kings. Mark D Davis notes that they find

the Christ child by way of astrology! As the first speaking humans in Matthew's gospel, the magi ask, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage" (v. 2). This unusual route from the stars to the Christ is unique to this story in Matthew and quite unexpected, given the numerous occasions in the Hebrew Bible where astral cults are strongly condemned. Even the creation story of the first chapter of Genesis can be read as a defiant myth of God's sovereignty, embraced by the oppressed Hebrews against the astral cults of their Babylonian oppressors. And yet here are Matthew's astrologists looking to the stars and finding the Christ.

However, there are kings in the story. King Herod, with his power guaranteed by Rome, had pretensions to being King of the Jews, but the gospel is clear that Jesus is King of the Jews. The same Greek word for King is used for both men, and there is no sense in the story of any kind of orderly transition with Charles waiting long and patiently in the wings. Herod will protect his position at any cost. 

The one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power. Gone from Herod and his court is any notion of the kind of servant leadership prescribed and required by Israel’s prophets. Gone is the memory that God placed them in their positions to serve rather than be served. Herod seeks his own ends and so is immediately threatened by even the mere mention of another – and therefore rival – king. (David Lose)

I remember asking as a child why "all Jerusalem was troubled with him," and my minister said that if there was another claim to the throne then war was likely to follow. Nobody wanted that sort of disturbance! It was a good answer, but Davis suggests another reading of the phrase, and given the fervour of Jewish nationalism, which was quite happy to go to war, it is persuasive:

What a disturbing indictment from Matthew. As the story will clearly imply, there was warrant for faithful Jews to understand this astral sign as corresponding with the promises of their own scriptural tradition. ... By adding this phrase, “and all of Jerusalem with him,” Matthew argues that the city of Jerusalem had cast its lot with the Roman Empire, as represented by Herod. (Davis)

How much we tame those Magi with our ethnocentric assumptions! They become the "good foreigners," so we overlook their astrology since it seems to validate our claims. We fail to see their judgement of our Jerusalem church: Seeing the Christ child, they, the barely enlightened aliens, refuse to have anything more to do with Herod.

Already in Matthew, as in the early verses of Luke's nativity, we are being shown a "child ... destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and ... a sign that will be opposed." (Luke 2:34) If we were to follow the example of anyone in this story, it would surely be to follow the Magi who do not go back to Jerusalem, but go home another way.

I note here that that other "road" taken by the Magi, as it is translated in the NRSV is, in fact, ὁδοῦ - way, which is a loaded term in Christian vocabulary. In the gospels, it often implies a choice about the way to live and about following Jesus' way. What follows the Magi's choice of a different way is chilling commentary upon the danger of following another way. The Authorised Version's (KJV) translates the verse as: "Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth..." (2:16) Wrath is indeed the response of power which senses it has not been respected as it expects, and sees truly that at some level it is being mocked.

The Lectionary excision ends at verse 12 with the presentation of the gifts and the worship by the Magi. But the story goes on. Joseph's dreams continue (1:20) and bring to mind memories of another Joseph who went unwillingly into Egypt, who was guided by dreams, and brought to safety in the end. And the story echoes the story of Moses who survived another massacre of innocents by Pharaoh.

It is a clever and poetic telling, reminding us that the joy of new birth is always felt in the shadow of terror. Matthew has already given us the significance of Bethlehem

And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
   who is to shepherd my people Israel.  (2:6)

and now he now reminds us of its past: Not as birthplace of David— it is Luke who uses that symbol— but as the gravesite of Rachel, wife of Jacob, and a mother of the nation. (Genesis 35:19-20) It is her children who are massacred by Herod, the children of Jacob who was then called Israel.

A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more. (Matthew 2:18, quoting Jeremiah 31:15)

But if we read each side of those lines Matthew quotes from Jeremiah 31, we discover they are part of an extended prophecy of great hope for a return from exile!

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. 
2 Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
   found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest, 
3   the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
   therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. 
4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
   O virgin Israel! ...
... there shall be a day when sentinels will call
   in the hill country of Ephraim:
‘Come, let us go up to Zion,
   to the Lord our God...’ 

15 Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
   lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
   she refuses to be comforted for her children,
   because they are no more. 
16 Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
   and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
   they shall come back from the land of the enemy; 
17 there is hope for your future,
says the Lord...  (Jeremiah 31: 1-4, 6, 15-17)

And if we follow the principle that the Gospel writers do not merely quote stray verses to proof-text their position, but to illuminate their text; that is, explain the Jesus event about which they are writing, and if we go back to read the text around Matthew's quotation of Micah, what do we find?

2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
   who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
   one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
   from ancient days. 
3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time
   when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
   to the people of Israel. 
4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
   in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
   to the ends of the earth; 
5 and he shall be the one of peace.  (Micah 5:1-5)

We again see a return from exile. This is reflected again in Matthew 2:15, which quotes Hosea 11:1.

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
   and out of Egypt I called my son. 

Just how much Matthew deliberately shaped his gospel into five discourses that reflect the five books of Torah to suggest that Jesus is a greater Moses is debated by the scholars. But a person sensitive to narrative cannot but hear the resonance between the story of Jesus and the story of the great heroes of the past. Into this Matthew injects the clear message that Jesus' birth is a part of a return from Exile, from Egypt, from Babylon, and from Roman rule. In all of these places, despite the efforts of the powerful, despite the massacres, God's intention is carried through.

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
   and out of Egypt I called my son. 
2 The more I called them,
   the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
   and offering incense to idols. 

3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
   I took them up in my arms;
   but they did not know that I healed them. 
4 I led them with cords of human kindness,
   with bands of love.
I was to them like those
   who lift infants to their cheeks.
   I bent down to them and fed them. 

5 They shall return to the land of Egypt,
   and Assyria shall be their king,
   because they have refused to return to me. 
6 The sword rages in their cities,
   it consumes their oracle-priests,
   and devours because of their schemes. 
7 My people are bent on turning away from me.
   To the Most High they call,
   but he does not raise them up at all. 

8 How can I give you up, Ephraim?
   How can I hand you over, O Israel? (Hosea 11:1-8)

This is our world, and our God. The massacres continue, despite all our efforts to be a better world, whether they be the machine gunning of young Sudanese boys being driven out of Ethiopia, chemical weapons in Syria, rocket attacks into Bethlehem itself. Or the slow deaths through ill-health in outback Australia where the city majority refuses justice to those who are isolated. We are all trapped in this, from the Queen down to the least child, from Presidents and Prime Ministers down to the last child on Nauru and the last tortured prisoner in Guantanamo Bay.

By Matthew's assessment, you and I, and the Queen of England, may be simply the soft face of Augustus, Putin, and Trump. Power seeks to reinforce itself by whatever means it needs. A sweet and gentle story of the Magi in church will do the trick for a while, but once that fails we may need to vilify refugees, punish the poor by refusing health care and by making New Start ever more difficult and less adequate, keep enemies of the state on display in a camp, or go to war for the pride of the nation. We are all complicit, almost helplessly immersed in our culture, remaining strategically silent, or becoming more or less actively a part of "all Jerusalem" in our support of the status quo.

Jesus survives as a refugee, and like so many, comes home to a nation which is still unsafe and in the grip of violence; regime change means very little. Even the safer neighbouring territory is still owned by a power. All human power which determines to persist devolves into violence. The difference about Jesus, and his power, is that he chooses to go into Jerusalem to die. Jesus understands that God's way must include everyone, or God is, in the end, just one more Herod. Jesus understands that God would rather die than be like that.

We should weep as the Magi walk down the aisle. For they are the rude interruption of reality into our Christmas joy and hope. They are the reminder that nothing will change until we step out of our Jerusalem privilege and comfort, and live as the Christ, treasuring life, but holding it lightly. If we do not go home by another Way, we may find that we have barely left Jerusalem at all.

Imagine if our nativity play had been truly Lukan and had no wise men, and if this week, the Magi paraded down the centre aisle to Mary's house. The Magi move off, stage left, and the soldiers burst in. Mary flees off stage right, holding her child. What would we do then? What would we say? What would it do to our hearts if our tradition were to have the play at the end of the service, and acted out a tradition year on year, where we all stood up and hurried out the side door after Mary, and left the soldiers standing there?

Andrew Prior (2019)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web
Matthew 2:1-12 - The Purpose of Epiphany (2013)
Rachel (2017)
The world is on our side! (2014)



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