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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 7, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:13-23 and Psalm 137:1-6
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

With today’s reading, we come to the end of the overture to Matthew’s gospel.  He’s been setting up the themes that will run through his gospel.  He’s set scenes and told stories to get us thinking about Jesus as the new David, as the promised Messiah, and as the fulfillment of prophecy.

In other places in his overture and here to today’s reading, he’s inviting us to think of Jesus as the new Moses.

If you read the beginning of Exodus, you’ll see that Moses was born at a time when Pharaoh (the Egyptian emperor) was seeking to kill all the newborn Hebrew boys, but through cunning and non-cooperation with the powers that be, Moses survived.  And when he grew up, Moses led his people out of Egyptian bondage into freedom.

Matthew tells us that in reaction to hearing the news of the birth of Jesus and interpreting that birth to be a threat to his rulership, Herod tries to have Jesus killed and ends up killing all the toddlers and infants in and around Bethlehem.  Jesus is born and threatened with death from Herod.  And when he grows up, Jesus will lead his people, us, out of bondage into freedom.

People have noted that this story of the slaughter of the innocents is in keeping with Herod’s suspicious (if not downright paranoid) character.  I think this points to Matthew writing a realistic story, but there is no archeological evidence that this is an historic event.  No, Matthew isn’t writing history; he’s introducing themes.  And one of the theme here is that Jesus is even greater than the great Moses.  Later in the gospel, for instance, we will read about Jesus going up on a mountain and sharing his beatitudes, evoking and supplanting Moses’ trip up the mountain to receive the ten commandments.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out one more Moses reference, but with a twist, that Matthew makes in this story:  “Escape for Moses is from Egypt, but for Jesus it is to Egypt.  The place of past doom and death for Moses had become the place of refuge and life for Jesus.”[1]

Another theme that plays out in this story in one I mentioned last week:  The Roman-appointed Herod seeks to kill Jesus in this story.  This theme of the principalities and powers seeking to kill Jesus will play again and again in the gospel.  And the theme will reach a climax when the Roman-appointed governor, Pilate, succeeds in killing Jesus.  Borg and Crossan put it this way:  “The clash between Jesus the Messiah and Caesar Augustus the emperor started right from the birth of Jesus.”[2]

“Though his [birth narrative overture] sounds the theme of fulfillment, its emotional tone is ominous.  Driven and dominated by Herod’s plot to kill Jesus, it is dark and foreboding.  It speaks of the murderous resistance of the rulers of this world to the coming of the kingdom of God.…  What is hoped for … is very different from the way things are and points forward to the conflict that will be engendered by Jesus’s public activity.…  Christmas brings joy and conflict.  It did so then, and it does so now.”[3]

To be sure, as a child I focused on the joy of Christmas.  My parents tried hard to hide the themes of conflict in the Christmas story, as (I suspect) their parents did for them.  It has been as an adult that I have become aware of the conflict Christmas brings, that Jesus brings.  Jesus upsets the social order – then and now.

We hide the conflict Christmas brings in the paintings we choose to see and in nativity scenes we set up in our living rooms.  We don’t want to see the conflict.  Can you imagine getting a Christmas card with “Scene of the massacre of the Innocents,” the image on your announcement folders, on it?

“Scène du massacre des Innocents,” by Léon Cogniet, 1824,

This must be one of the most haunting Christmas paintings ever.  “A terrified mother cowers in a darkened corner, muffling the cries of her small infant, while around her the chaos and horror of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem rages.”[4]  Rather than painting the bloodshed, the artist focuses our attention on one person, a mother who fears she is about to lose her child.  Her arms envelop the child.  The mother’s feet are bare, as the child may be, revealing how vulnerable they are.  There is nowhere to run to.  She is cornered.

In the background, we see people fleeing.  A woman carries her children, one under each arm, rushing down the stairs, running for their lives.  A man – is he covering his eyes so he doesn’t have to witness the carnage, or is the trying to protect himself?  A soldier grabs a woman’s shoulder as she turns from him to move her baby further away.  And is that small figure in midair with only the wall as a background a baby being thrown to their death?

These figures are in the background and washed out, out of focus, drawing our attention to the woman cowering in the corner, to her face, as she looks out.  As she stares out – at us.  What is she saying to you?

This painting brings up a conflict I have with Matthew’s story.  I am grateful for the angel’s intervention in the story.  Three times, Matthew tells us, angels came to Joseph in dreams to tell him where he should be living.  First, there is a dream telling Joseph to take his family out of the country to escape Herod’s plot to kill Jesus.  Years later, an angel comes in a dream to let Joseph know that Herod the Great is dead and that they can return to their home country.  But when they return and find that one of Herod’s son is ruling much of the country, an angel advises Joseph in a third dream to move to Galilee and they settle in Nazareth.

How nice of the angels to make sure Jesus survives.  But what about the other families in Bethlehem?  What about the woman in the painting and her child?  Why do some people escape the mayhem in their own countries and find refuge in other countries, while other families remain and suffer?  And what about when the refuge they find is its own kind of hell?

On Christmas Eve, I talked about the Moria refugee camp on the Island of Lesbos in Greece.  Writing in The New York Times, Stephanie Saldaña describes the camp.  It is a space designed for 2,330 people.  More than 6,000 souls (over two-and-a-half times as many people as it was designed for) fleeing the world’s most violent conflicts – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo – are crowded into the space.

“The scene is grim:  piles of trash, barbed wire, children wailing, rows of cheap summer tents with entire families crammed inside and fights regularly breaking out on the camp’s periphery.  The stench is overwhelming.…

“Moria opened as a ‘hot spot,’ or refugee processing center, in 2015, a year in which more than a million refugees streamed into Europe.  Lay the blame for the squalid conditions in the camp on the 2016 European Union-Turkey agreement, struck to discourage refugees from taking the sea route to Europe.  Those who arrive on the Greek islands now must wait to be processed by the European Union before proceeding to the mainland.  The wait can be months, with no guarantee that requests for asylum will be granted.  The combination of waiting, uncertainty, overcrowding and unlivable conditions has created what appears to be an intentional epidemic of despair, meant to dissuade refugees from seeing Europe as a haven.…”[5]

While we may call Jesus Emmanuel, God with us, the Prince of Peace, we forget that his other titles, like King of kings and Lord of lords, carry with them the seeds of conflict.  And even though we call his family “Holy,” we forget that other titles are just as appropriate:  Impoverished.  Peasants.  Homeless (according to Luke’s version of the Christmas story).  Refugees (according to Matthew’s version of the story).

Back in September, Diana Butler Bass wrote an amazing Twitter thread about refugees and immigrants:  “The whole biblical tradition is about immigration, about the movement of people from one home to another.  Adam and Eve leave Eden and have to make home and family in a place they never intended.  The first story of the Bible is a story of exile and finding home.  And so it continues.

“Noah and his family flee the flood, survive, and build a new home.

“God calls Abraham and Sarah out from their home.  The founder of the three great faiths left Ur to find a home with God.  In this story, hospitality emerges as the most important virtue of faith.  Welcoming the stranger is like welcoming God.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam teach that human beings are all wanderers, exiles and aliens.  Thus, we welcome as we dream of being welcomed.

“Jacob was an exile who returned to reconcile with his brother.

“Joseph went unwillingly to Egypt, eventually leading God’s people to a rich and abundant land.

“In Egypt, the Hebrew immigrants prospered.  But they were so successful that they scared Pharaoh and he made them slaves.  Moses set them free and led them back to the land of Israel.  Exiles back to their home.

“The history following was one of constant movement, of settlement, exile, immigration, return.

“The New Testament opens with two stories of movement.  Mary and Joseph must leave their town and register in a government census [as Luke tells the story].  Thus, Jesus was born away from home.  [And Matthew tells us that,] as a result of a prophecy, Herod seeks to kill [Jesus].  Mary, Joseph, and baby flee to Egypt to escape, not to return for years.

“Jesus first instruction to his disciples is not ‘believe in me.’  But it is ‘Follow me.’  Because faith is a life of being an immigrant, homeless to find a home in God.  And that’s exactly how the early church lived.  They left Jerusalem and went to Judea and out into the whole Roman world.

“The Bible is a document of immigrants, itinerants, exiles, strangers, and sojourners of all sorts.  And that’s why we are all Dreamers.  We dream of being settled in grace, in the love and full embrace of God.  We dream of a world where all exiles find home, where all strangers rest in peace, comfort, and joy.  We dream of the time where we all plant vine and fig tree, where milk and honey flow.  We dream of no boundaries that create war and division.  We dream of swords beaten into plowshares.  We dream God’s dream.

“If you are in the family of biblical faith, you are a dreamer.  Like Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, the patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, followers, disciples, and lovers of God through time.  A vast human family of exiles [and refugees], seeking and finding, offering hospitality, and caring for all on the journey.  Keep dreaming.  Always.  For it is a biblical dream, one that is the very center of the human drama of creation, redemption, and joy.

“And hospitality, being both guests and hosts, must be practiced that this dream manifests in the world.  Without hospitality – welcoming the stranger – movement of peoples results in colonization, exclusion, and violence.  The Biblical dream turns to nightmare without that practice of welcome, of sharing table, of food and gifts.

“So, dream.  Live graciously as sojourner and live generously as citizen.  Practice hospitality.  Love one another.”[6]

Amen.

____________

Questions for Reflection:

  • What is the woman in Léon Cogniet’s painting saying to you?
  • In what ways are you a refugee?
  • In what ways can you offer hospitality to the displaced?
  • What part of God’s dream are you called to make real?

____________

[1] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 145.

[2] Ibid, 138.

[3] First Christmas quoted by The Marcus J. Borg Foundation Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/MarcusJBorgFoundation/posts/1617274701663960, posted and accessed 28 December 2017).

[4] Michael Frost, “Is this the greatest Christmas painting of all time?” Mike Frost, http://mikefrost.net/greatest-christmas-painting-time/ (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 2 January 2018).

[5] Stephanie Saldaña, “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/22/opinion/christmas-jesus-refugee-crisis.html (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 23 December 2017).

[6] Diana Butler Bass, Twitter, https://twitter.com/dianabutlerbass (posted and accessed 7 September 2017); I have done some minor editing, for instance, adding Oxford commas, changing ampersands to the word “and,” and changing all-caps words into italics.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 11, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 2:13-18 and Matthew 5:38-47
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Whatever happened to the overture?

I suspect there are enough theatre nerds in this congregation (I count myself among them – obviously) that I can’t be the only one who’s wondered this. The musical theatre overture has, for the most part, disappeared. And it’s been fading away for a long time. According to a National Public Radio story from eight years ago, one reason the overture has pretty much disappeared is money. Tighter budgets have led to smaller orchestras, which means simpler orchestrations, which means no overture.[1] An article in The New York Times from ten years ago says the demise of the overture goes back now 40 years. Here are a few paragraphs from the article.

“Who could forget the great overture to ‘A Chorus Line’? First there’s that infectious hop-step vamp from the song ‘One.’ Then come some of the show’s most familiar melodies: ‘I Hope I Get It,’ ‘Nothing,’ ‘What I Did for Love.’ Finally the orchestra swings back for a rousing half-chorus of ‘One’ that would make even gouty musical-theater-phobes want to leap to their feet with excitement.

“Oh, wait – ‘A Chorus Line’ doesn’t have an overture.…

“Back in 1975, a month before the original production’s debut, Marvin Hamlisch did write a ‘Chorus Line’ overture like the one described. But the director, Michael Bennett, and the show’s other creators decided not to include it, fearing it would destroy the illusion that the audience was watching an actual audition as the lights went up.…

“Thanks in part to ‘A Chorus Line,’ the Broadway orchestra and the Broadway overture would rarely emerge from that obscurity again.”[2]

No, I haven’t lost my mind, and, yes, I do remember that this is a sermon. I just want to remind you of what an overture is – or was. The overture, typically several minutes long, was “made up of melodies heard later in the show and [was] played by an orchestra before the curtain [went] up.”[3] It introduced musical themes to the audience, acting “like a bridge between real life and the world they’re about to enter.”[4]

And that’s exactly what Matthew is doing in the first two chapters of his gospel, the chapters where Matthew talks about Jesus’ birth and childhood. This is an idea that is new to me, introduced by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book The First Christmas. Luke does it, too, with his birth and childhood narrative, also the first two chapters of his gospel. Both authors introduce the themes that will play out in the rest of their gospels.

The big theme we hear in Matthew’s overture is that Jesus is the new Moses. It’s here in our first lesson. Just as Moses was born under an evil ruler, the Pharaoh, Jesus is born under the evil King Herod. Just as Moses needed to escape the slaughter of Jewish newborns, Jesus needs to escape the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem.[5]

Crossan and Borg go on to suggest that the number five is important. There are in this overture, five dreams move the story along and five prophetic fulfillments are cited. This calls to mind the Torah, they say, because it is made up of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. These are also called “the books of Moses.” And like the five books of Moses, the main body of Matthew’s gospel is easily divided into five sections:

  • the Law discourse (the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus reinterprets the law Moses received – on a mountain);
  • the missionary discourse;
  • the parable discourse;
  • the community discourse; and
  • the eschatological discourse.[6]

Borg and Crossan point to other ways this overture introduces the theme that Jesus is the new Moses, but I don’t want to get lost in the weeds (or bulrushes) digging into these. Instead, I want to you hear this general idea:

The Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke – their overtures – are important not because any of it happened historically (and aside from Mary being pregnant and giving birth, is likely that little else in the story happened historically). No, the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke are important because they tell us where the story is going.

And where does Matthew tell us where the story is going? Just in the reading we heard today, we hear both that non-Jews will seek Jesus and that wise ones will seek him. We hear that Jesus will be the new Davidic king (a subtheme in the overture lifted up elsewhere). We hear that the principalities and powers will find Jesus threatening and will seek to kill him. We hear that God has an escape plan for Jesus, that death won’t have the final word.

Do you see one reason why it’s important to keep Herod in Christmas? The overture doesn’t work without him.

Of course it’s not the only reason to keep Herod in Christmas. Any first or second century Jew would know what a despot Herod the Great was. Yes, he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, an important sign of Jewish identity. But he was a puppet king, dependent on the Roman empire for his status. “Cruel and ruthless, he used slave labor for his huge building projects. He had a reputation for assassinating anyone he considered a threat – including his wife and two of his own sons.”[7]

You can see why it was not a far-fetched storyline to have Herod kill all the infant and toddler boys in Bethlehem in Matthew’s overture. There are some important questions that are raised by having Herod in this story. We know how Herod managed power and dealt with threats. How will we? We know how Herod used violence to get his way. Will we?

“Herod – and Pharaoh before him – model one way: 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, not violence. 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.”[8]

Brian McLaren points out, “All this can sound quite abstract and theoretical unless we go one step deeper. The next war – whoever wages it – will most likely resemble every war in the past. It will be planned by powerful older men in their comfortable offices, and it will be fought on the ground by people the age of their children and grand children. Most of the [uniformed] casualties will probably be between eighteen and twenty-two years old – in some places, much younger. So the old, sad music of the ancient story of Herod and the slaughter of the children will be replayed again. And again, the tears of mothers will fall.”[9]

By keeping Herod in Christmas, we are forced to grapple with what we believe about God. “Does God promote or demand violence? Does God favor the sacrifice of children for the well-being of adults? Is God best reflected in the image of powerful old men who send the young and vulnerable to die on their behalf? Or is God best seen in the image of a helpless baby, identifying with the victims, sharing their vulnerability, full of fragile but limitless promise?”[10]

Our second lesson answers these question – but in a whole new way. From the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus holds up the ethic of love as the real fulfillment of the law. And this love needs to be deep, deep enough to turn your enemies into friends. When faced with oppression, the typical responses are fight or flight. “An eye for an eye” is a call to meet violence with violence. The other response is to let the violence crush you.

Jesus offers a third way: meet violence with non-violent activism. Because someone would only strike you with their right hand, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, they’ve backhanded you. Doing that means they are treating you as an inferior. By offering your left cheek, you are saying, “If you want to hit me, you’ll have to hit me as your equal.” If someone sues you for your only possession, the clothes off your back, give them your underwear, too. If they reduce you to being naked, they have lost face. The only person who would force you to go a mile would be a Roman soldier. They were known for forcing locals to carry their packs and were restricted to only forcing that for one mile. By insisting that you go two miles, you’ll get the occupying soldier in trouble.

There is a third way, Jesus says, to fight for the dignity of the oppressed without becoming an oppressor.

“To be alive in the adventure of Jesus,” McLaren says, “is to face at every turn the destructive reality of violence. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to side with the vulnerable … in defiance of the [oppressors] who see [the vulnerable] as expendable. To walk the road with Jesus is to withhold consent and cooperation with the powerful, and to invest it instead with the vulnerable. It is to refuse to bow to all the Herods and all their ruthless regimes – and to reserve our loyalty for a better king and a better kingdom.

“Jesus has truly come, but each year during the Advent season, we acknowledge that the dream for which he gave his all has not yet fully come true. As long as elites plot violence, as long a children pay the price, and as long as mothers weep, we cannot be satisfied.

“… In this Advent season, we dare to believe that God feels their pain and come near to bring comfort. If we believe that is true, then of course we must join God and come near, too. That is why we must keep Herod and the ugliness [of the story] of his mass murder in the beautiful Christmas story.”[11]

Now, as we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything in the sermon or scripture readings that caught your interest; or
… a time when you were a child and an adult other than a parent showed you great respect or kindness; or
… the idea that Matthew’s birth narrative is an “overture” to his gospel; or
… to hold in your mind both the image of Herod, ruthless and power-hungry, and the image of Jesus, a vulnerable baby—then observe what happens in your heart and offer a prayer of response.

[1] Jeff Lunden, “Broadway’s Best Musical Revival: The Overture?” National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91480130 (posted 15 June 2008; accessed 8 December 2016).

[2] Jesse Green, “Whatever Happened to the Overture?” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/01/theater/01gree.html (posted 1 October 2006; accessed 8 December 2016).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lunden, op. cit.

[5] Borg, Marcus J., and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 41-42.

[6] Ibid, 42-46.

[7] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 16, page 71. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[8] Ibid, 71-72.

[9] Ibid, 72-73.

[10] Ibid, 73.

[11] Ibid, 73-74.

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