‘Remember the Children’

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

Matthew 2:13-23

 

‘Remember the Children’

 

The Christian movement was born in the synagogue among observant Jews. They were Jews who regularly attended on the Sabbath. At worship they would read. Listen and become conversant with the sacred scriptures as the Jews understood them. By that I mean there were three main repositories of the sacred literature. The Torah or ‘The Book of Moses’ as it was called. Some synagogues would expect the whole Torah to be read in a year and this meant 10 to 15 minutes of reading each Sabbath. In more liberal synagogues a three year time span was allowed. The second lesson would come from ‘The Former Prophets’ which is the Jewish History after Moses and up to 1200BCE and the defeat of the nation of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians. The third lesson would be from ‘The Latter Prophets’ of ‘The Book of The Twelve’. Christians later would call these ‘The Minor Prophets’. The point of this introduction is to place what comes next into the context of a long story and an interrelated story.

 

We might recap a little and remember the story of the wicked king or Pharaoh, who tried to put to death the infant Moses as God’s promised deliverer and we might remember that Matthew has repackaged the story as the Jesus story. A wicked king named Herod tries to put to death God’s promised deliverer named Jesus. We see here a simple yet profound statement that states that the Jewish people are being relived through Jesus. In other words the very sacred words of the ancient scriptures are finding their fulfilment in this man Jesus. We note here just how important this is to Matthew because Matthew borrows texts willy nilly to convey this point. He even misquotes the text to make it flow better with his argument. He has Isaiah say “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel, which means God with us.” When the Hebrew text actually says, “Behold a young woman is with child.” There is no way a virgin can be expecting a baby, in fact the word virgin appears nowhere in the text from Isaiah.

 

Further to this we revisit the Isaiah context and we find Two Kings, Pekah from the Northern Kingdom called Israel, and Rezin, the king of Syria and they are in siege positions outside the walls of Jerusalem. They had made war on Judah and its king Ahaz because he refused to join their alliance against Assyria. Their goal was to topple Ahaz and put in a puppet king adding strength to their alliance to hold of the Assyrians.

 

Ahaz is on top of his walls inspecting his defenses when he is met by the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah assures Ahaz that Jerusalem will not fall but Ahaz is not convinced. Isaiah then suggests Ahaz should ask for a sign from God but Ahaz refuses. Irritated Isaiah tells Ahaz that he will receive a sign whether he likes it or not. ‘Behold a woman is with child.” This baby soon to be born into a royal household will be the heir to the throne, a sign of endurance of the kingdom. In fact the Kings Ahaz fears will be long gone before this child is old enough to choose between good and evil.

 

The facts of history are that Judah was destined to work out a treaty with Assyria making Judah a vassal state and both Israel and Syria were destroyed by Assyria. This clearly shows that the text in Isaiah had nothing to do with predicting the birth of the messiah some 800 years later. It also shows that Matthew was stretching his interpretive powers wildly by using the text the way he did. Let me say here that he was not wrong in doing this because it was just how it was done. It was how the sacred scriptures were kept alive over hundreds of years.

 

The second text Matthew weaves into his story comes from Micah. The wise men stop to ask directions at the palace of King Herod. Herod consults his chief priests and scribes to find out where this messiah is to be born. Here we have Matthew weaving the story to ensure the lineage of Jesus to the line of King David. The heir to the throne must be a descendant of David because a major task of the messiah is to restore the throne of David. The problem here for Matthew is that Micah has Bethlehem as the town from which David emerged to rule and the messiah must follow the pattern. The problem Matthew faces is that Jesus is from Nazareth and so he moves the birth of Jesus to Bethlehem and proceeds to tell the story of King Herod slaughtering the boy babies in Bethlehem in his effort to destroy the promised deliverer. Mathew makes another outrageous leap when he links this to another tragic moment in Jewish history when the Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom. Tradition has it that the Northern Kingdom was made up of the descendants of Joseph, the son of Rachel, who was said to have been Jacob’s favourite wife. Thus Jeremiah portrays Rachel, the tribal mother of the Northern Kingdom, as weeping for her children who are now lost forever. Matthew sees in that story a prediction of the deaths of the children at Herod’s hand. One has to say that this is a very long stretch and yet it is also arguing for the texts to be seen as living in their adaptability to the new context and interpretable in that new context. They are not history but rather experiential. They are living stories.

 

And on that note I want to offer a reflection that I hope will make sense of my title. The challenge is to be aware that many of us might have a far too romantic and idealistic notion that Christmas has to be perfect. Some of us have the tendency to dwell on the sentimental aspects of Christmas as an escape from the harsh, cold realities of life in this world. Only to be let down after all the parties are over. The truth of the matter is that life is never that idealistic. Even at Christmas time, there are countless, untold stories of child abuse, torture and even murder—many of these stories don’t make it into the news. One of the challenges of our gospel would have us focus on the stories of such children, just as we focus on the Christ-Child. So, we remember the far too many children around the globe who have suffered and continue to suffer from the actions of others.

The truth is that far too many parents are wailing and lamenting today for their children and they refuse to be consoled because they’ve lost their children to abuse of all kinds. From lack of knowledge about the pitfalls of parenting to experiences of forced child labour projects where the children are treated like slaves. Parents have lost their children to terrorist militias who force young children to kill their own people or themselves be killed if they refuse; they’ve lost their children to the makers of pornography and child prostitution and sometimes the pimps kidnap and market these children to another country so that the parents never see them again. Such are the harsh, cold realities of the world today. In this sense, nothing much has changed under the sun. Far too often it seems that life seems too hard.

The move from Nazareth to Bethlehem story suggests that if they had lived in another place, they might have been safe. But they lived in the outlying villages, and the guerrilla war raged in the communities around them and often in their own.

If they had lived in another place, they might have been safe. But they were not safe, not even in their own homes. They were Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Christians, and their mom and dad had religious symbols on the wall and these made their home suspect.

If they had lived in another place, they might have been safe but in their country mothers, fathers, teens, children, even babies were murdered. All were suspected of being subversives, and the killing of innocent children was a powerful signal to other groups in the area that their lives were also in danger. The death of the innocent ones was used as a threat against their elders. Martyrs. Innocent, young martyrs. All because……

In today’s gospel, we learn that the celebration of Christmas in not so pretty, romantic or idealistic. Rather, we learn through this divine drama in three acts that life in this world can be very dangerous. Life in this world can be cruel. Life in this world can be subject to evil plots, schemes and acts orchestrated by power hungry people who themselves are possessed by greed and power and who rely on fear to protect their power and status.

In the first act of this divine drama that Matthew is making, God speaks to Joseph in a dream through an angel, a messenger of God, commanding him to: “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.” WOW! What a message! No romantic or idealistic picture of Christmas here! Rather, we have the harsh, cold reality of a tyrant ruler, Herod, who is determined to shed innocent blood. He’s doing everything possible to kill the Christ-Child. According to Jewish historian, Josephus, Herod was an extremely cruel man, who seems too had had no problems ruling by fear. …Herod ordered the execution of three of his sons (even Caesar in Rome is reported to have said it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son); and at his burial, one member of every family was to be slain so that the nation might really mourn. However, Herod did not manage to kill Jesus. Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt and lived there as refugees until after it was safe to return back to the Promised Land, after Herod had died, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

Matthew’s second act in the drama, is where Herod was infuriated when he learned that he had been tricked by the wise men. So “he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.” According to Matthew, this fulfilled the nightmare, told by the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:15, which warned: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Matthew’s third act of the divine drama reminds us that the Herod’s of this world do not prevail. Sooner or later they lose their power. Sooner or later they die. Today, as we remember the Christ-Child and the danger he was in, and his flight into Egypt as a refugee; we also pause and remember today all of the children in this world who have been or who are right now being abused, tortured, murdered or living somewhere as refugees can find a new birthplace, can be restored in their living, can find a new life.. We remember them not as perpetual victims but rather as children who can be first in the kingdom. They can be healed and restored from their sufferings and their grief when their stories are told as living stories and not hidden by romantic, idealistic escapism. When the birth stories are not about the birth of a hero but rather about the birth of the adult to come. They can be healed and restored when they take on a new wonder, a new meaning and a new power each and every time they are told. Amen.

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