A reflection on Matthew 2:13-23 for January 3, 2021 at Mosaic Baptist Church
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.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and 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.’
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. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘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.’
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘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.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 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. 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.’
Matthew 2:13-23 (NRSVA)
Kings are powerful people.
They are also invested people. Herod is one who benefits from things staying the same. As things are – profit comes his way. Prestige. Influence.
Herod benefits from the system.
In our passage, Herod’s violent response to the news of the scripture-and-star revealed birth is both foreseen and disclosed. Joseph’s dream – and the ancient prophet’s words – reveal what the king believes is hidden.
Of course, Herod is only doing what kings do. He is protecting what he believes is his.
God, however, is doing the same. A dream. A new path. Another prophecy fulfilled by the obedient – and wary – Joseph.
God is protecting what is Gods.
I hope the story of the Bethlehem’s massacre leaves you sad – or even enraged. The madness of a king. Soldiers sent on this horrific mission. The most disturbing of predictions brutally fulfilled.
Perhaps, like me, you want God to do more. Why warn only Joseph? Why not appear to all the families of Bethlehem? Why is heaven’s army not sent to their defence?
These are age old questions asked in a thousand different contexts. Where was God when the car careened out of control? Where was the prayed-for miracle within the despair that led to suicide? Where was the creator’s voice during the making of that always-regretted decision?
Matthew’s story – for many – raises such questions. To be sure, it does not answer them as fully as some may wish.
At times I wonder if these are more philosophical questions than real and grounded. Many who encounter such oppression do not find themselves blaming God. These are often people who see power very clearly.
This story certainly tells us something about the insanity that can possess those in with an authority they want to protect. It also points us to one who sees and knows all. It invites us to recognise – and trust – the one who oversees the full picture.
It also asks us to recognise that – from the very outset – Jesus was opposed. His birth inspired rage.
And – rather than removing Jesus from this – God guided the infant Jesus through it.
If Matthew’s story is to be taken seriously – God guided and protected the source of the world’s salvation from the tyranny of a mad ruler. There is more at stake here than the life of the infant Jesus.
This is about the life of the world.
And in fulfilling that God-plan this Jesus will give of himself. He too will know a violent death at the hands of human dictators. In time he will embrace the suffering of these innocents. Make no mistake, the answer to, ‘Where was God when these children were massacred?’, is that God was suffering and rejected alongside them.
It is the same answer for you. I may not know your particular challenges. I do know, however, that the gospel tells us that God embraces your suffering.
Intriguingly, Matthew’s account rolls from the murder of these innocents to the death of the king himself. It reads as something of a relief. The madness is cut short. A tyrannical reign ends. A safe passage is made for the holy family’s return.
The terror of Herod is over – and the plans of a grace-filled God are both protected and revealed. Herod and his madness – on the other hand – are not eternal. The king is temporary.
Jospeh, understandably, remains uncertain at the news that Archelaus has replaced his father. Yet we see here the understanding intervention of another God-initiated dream. God understands our fears.
And Jesus ends, again as predicted, living in the fringe region of Galilee.
This is the story of the failed plans of a king – and the fulfilled plans of God.
May you trust the one who is eternal – and allow the temporary rage of your oppressors to fade!
Do you find yourself asking any of the questions above as you read the account of the killing of the infants? How are your questions different from these? How are they the same?
In what ways are you, like Herod, invested in the system? In what ways do you see yourself as outside the system? Do you think you see power clearly? How does this story help you to re-think power?
How do you respond to the thought of God ‘suffering alongside’ us?