Isaiah 60: 1-5; Matthew 2: 1-12
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 4, 2015
Earlier this week, I read a blog post about the passage in Matthew regarding Herod and the magi, but with a different twist. It was entitled “The Cowardly Wise Men: A Reflection for Epiphany and the Holy Innocents”. The author David Henson, an ordained Episcopal priest, grapples with the part in the story when Herod realizes that the wise men outsmarted him and then flies into his murderous rage, ordering the death of all children under the age of two in and around Bethlehem. Henson reflected that the wise men saved one child but neglected to save the rest; instead they saved their own skins. He went on to say that “frequently it is the wealthy and privileged few who see injustice…and choose to return home another way where they won’t have to bear witness to the bloodshed, the deprivation, the weeping.”
Many of those who commented on the post accused Henson of not sticking to the text, of ignoring Matthew’s agenda of linking Jesus with Moses and the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah, of inserting his own agenda into his interpretation. At first, I too, felt the same way. I recalled seminary professors who said time and again, exegesis not eisegesis; that is, a critical interpretation of scripture, not a subjective interpretation. What is the text saying? What is the context in which it was written?
The context is one of two different versions of Jesus’ birth, written about 50-60 years after his death, with only a few points of agreement: Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, and his birthplace, Bethlehem, which literally means “house of bread”. Many of Matthew’s readers were Jewish followers of Jesus. We know this because of how often Matthew uses quotes from Hebrew scripture connecting Israel’s past with Jesus’ ministry. Matthew even goes so far as to have Herod order the death of innocent children, in order that Jeremiah’s telling of Rachel weeping for her children would ring in his listener’s ears. Matthew associates the birth of Jesus with a mother’s inconsolable grief, in that Jesus, God-with-us, will set things right. The injustices and horrors of empire will soon come to an end. The hope that Matthew has in the birth of the Messiah is that no longer will the innocent be slaughtered at the expense of those in power.
This is one interpretation of what the texts says. But now I wonder, what is so very wrong with questioning how the text goes about its job? The lectionary conveniently leaves off before we hear its violent conclusion. The slaughter of innocents speaks now as well as then, but so does questioning those in power who could have gone another road by speaking up. Where do the rich go to listen to the poor? In short, they don’t.
All of these conversations about who is this king of the Jews and where will he be born taken place in the halls of power, between the puppet-king Herod and astronomers with deep pockets yet generous hearts. Herod views the peasantry under his rule and any who would threaten his authority as disposable; not very different from the Romans. The magi turn a blind eye to this; after all, their mission is accomplished. What Herod does with his own people is his business.
It is my opinion that Christianity no longer needs to legitimize Jesus as savior with a story of innocent children slain while those who have power do nothing to stop it. If this story teaches us anything, it’s that power must be not only shared but given away if lives are to be saved, if this world is to be transformed, if God’s glory is to shine. The birth of Jesus sets things right by how we who are rich allow Jesus, a poor homeless man, to work through us and in us.
Where do the rich go to listen to the poor? Here at this table. Here, where the gospel is seen and heard by how we live our lives, how we raise our voices for the unheard, how we share what power we have and give it away to those who have none. Amen.