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Politics of Scripture

A Power Hungry Politician and a Vulnerable God—The Politics of Matthew 2:13-23

The account of the slaughter of the innocents rests like a deeply unsettling shadow upon the Christmas story, with its themes of God’s peace and presence. Yet, in reflecting upon this account, we may discover a profound new conception of the mode of God’s presence within our world and its tragedies.

Matthew 2:13-23
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.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill 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. 17 Then 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.”

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

There are few passages in the New Testament that can match the horror of this one. What begins as a glorious revelation of the infant Jesus to three foreign visitors ends with the wholesale slaughter of infants and toddlers by an enraged and power-hungry king. From majesty to massacre in a few short verses. And all of this on the first Sunday after Christmas, when our own children and loved ones have barely finished tearing the paper from gifts.

Those preaching on this text face a daunting challenge. I’ve been told by a reliable source that many pastors choose to skip it altogether—it’s just too much to tackle.

The problem is not just the way this story challenges our Christmas merriment; it is also the way it challenges our thinking about God. Many readers cannot help but ask how such a tragedy can occur under the watchful eye of our great God. How is it that these innocents are slaughtered? Much like that earlier story of the Hebrew babies cast in the Nile at the order of Pharaoh (Exodus 1-2), or the later genocide of Jewish children and their families in the concentration camps of Poland and Germany, or even the children and adults who have perished in more than 18 US school shootings that have taken place in the last year[1]—where is God’s power to be found in all of this mess? It is not that we believe God is indifferent to the plight of the innocents, or that God cannot save them. The story is not asking us to choose between a powerful but wicked God and a good but impotent God. Nevertheless, in this story of human tyranny and violence, the passage refuses to grant us a vision of the enthroned God who puts kings in their places. It does not comfort us with a psalm praising God’s power to punish the wicked and infuse governments with justice.

So what does this passage give us? A vision of a fragile baby secreted away in the night by protective hands. A woman’s lament for her lost children.

“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.” (Matt 2:18)

What kind of deliverance is that?

In the recent book Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimagining God’s Delivering Presence in the Old Testament, feminist biblical theologian Juliana Claassens asks us to consider the ways in which God delivers “in but not from” such horrors which humans perpetrate against other vulnerable humans.[2] She lifts up the healing power of laments, which were performed by women mourners in ancient Israel. God is in the grief (Jeremiah 8:21—9:1). God laments with and through Rachel. Claassens lifts up the God who nurtures in the midst of tragedy, calling out biblical images of God as mother (Isaiah 42:13-14; 49:13-15), nurturer, and protector of children. In these human actions of care and grief, the divine presence is made known.

In the wake of September 11th, Teresa Berger captured this delivering presence with these words:

The divine presence wept. And then I saw: in her strong brown arms she was gathering the remains of her beautiful creation, all the maimed and the burnt, the dying and the dead, the unborn, the orphaned, the lost, and those who inflicted loss… And I saw that she was a woman in travail, desperate to birth new life, a child of peace… Then I heard the voice of the divine presence saying, Who will labor with me, and who will be midwife to life? Here I am, I said, I want to birth life with you. And the divine presence said, Come, take your place beside me.[3]

Indeed, in Matthew’s Gospel, we do not find God in the centers of human power or in the seats of earthly authority. God is not found in the political sphere or associated with political strength. The power of God is not displayed in shows of force.

Instead, God is found in the midst of vulnerability. Matthew trains our eye on the domestic sphere and there we see God in baby pink flesh, in the fragility of a small, dependent creature. And not just there. Matthew’s gospel would also have us see God at work in the protective acts of Jesus’ family. While Matthew gives us very few glimpses of Mary and the other women who delivered Jesus and the other infants into the world, Matthew does show us the protection and care that Joseph provides to the child and to Mary. And this is no small thing, because Joseph knows that this is not his biological child.

As familiar as we are with this story, Matthew’s depiction of divine deliverance is still disorienting and subversive. It challenges our reliance on shows of force and brute strength, our desire for deliverance in the form of God’s mighty arm. But even after Jesus has grown to adulthood, Matthew would have us see God in the face of the meek (Matthew 5:8), the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), the poor and imprisoned (Matthew 25:42-43). Matthew would have us take part in their deliverance.

Days after last year’s slaughter of the innocents in Newtown, Connecticut, John Thatamanil wrote,

God does not come to eradicate vulnerability but to teach us how to welcome it. Love comes to open our eyes to look for holiness not in might and power, not in any futile attempt to secure ourselves against each other by force of arms, but precisely in our delicate bonds with each other.[4]

[1] This number comes from information listed on Wikipedia.

[2] L. Juliana Claassens, Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimagining God’s Delivering Presence in the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminst/John Knox, 2012), 86. Claassens takes this particular insight from the work of Melissa Raphael.

[3] From Teresa Berger, “Fragments of a Vision in a September 11 World,” in Strike Terror No More: Theology, Ethics, and the New War (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002), reprinted in Claassens, Mourner, Mother, Midwife, 80-81.

[4] John Thatamanil, “Christmas in Newtown and Bethlehem.” The Huffington Post 12/27/12.

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