Matthew 2:13-23: Lectionary Text (Uncensored) for the First Sunday after Christmas
Christmas really is a wondrous time. I like the whole of it. Tradition has chipped in to help stage the drama with characters that have become so familiar they feel like family, living in the creche on the mantle above the fireplace. Angels, wisemen, shepherds — the cattle are lowing and the poor baby sleeps. He wakes, but doesn't cry as the song goes. Luke especially allows for this portrait. It is a gracious night, filled with the sounds of silence, of oohs and ahs and of gloria in excelsis deo. To be honest, this is the image of Christmas that most warms my own heart.
But the Gospel of Matthew invades this scene with different notes, more ominous and dissonant. They are sounded through the paranoia of Herod, called the Great, who fills the air with the cries of children and parents as babies are taken from the arms of their mothers and dashed to the ground. In Matthew it is not silent night, but krystal nacht — one child escapes, but only at great expense
I wonder if anyone ever told Jesus that on the eve of his birth children were slaughtered? Did the angry glances of the parents of the dead children remind Mary and Joseph that they had somehow escaped? Or worse, had run away? Or, I wonder if the question was raised by Jesus' own curiosity as he grew up amid the strange absence of boys his own age. Could this help explain his later preoccupation with children, his joy at having them around, and his anger when adults prevented them from coming close?
Matthew, an excellent midrashist and editor of high art and great skill, tells us this story in such a fashion that it feels as if we have heard it before. I f we take this hint as an intentional allusion and follow it back into Jewish memory, it ought to conjure up the image of Pharoah, who went after the firstborn of the house of Israel in his attempt to deepen fear and obedience in the hearts of his slaves. In that story another redeemer survives: the one destined to bring the people out the land of Egypt. In Matthew, ironically, the family escapes to Egypt in order to escape the madness of an Israelite king. Certainly, the Gospel writer sees in this narrative a connection between Moses and Jesus.
That bridge is strengthened in Matthew as Jesus enters the wilderness for forty days — and, then, ascends a mountain from which he offers a new interpretation of the commandments that Moses first brought down from the heights of Sinai. If we take the cue, the brutality of Herod suggests that an exodus is about to happen. We should be on guard, watchful and awake!
The allusion is rich and powerful and is worthy of thoughtful reflection but, we must not do this at the expense of the children who die on that evening. That is always a danger in text study. For example, many scholars argue that the story of Herod's slaughter of the innocents is presented in the text only to make the connection with Exodus and Moses. Many doubt that the incident ever happened, as it is difficult to verify by other historical reports. All this may be so. But it takes us outside the narrative. I understand why we might want to do that. It is much easier to talk about the death of children in terms of prophetic fulfillment and theological continuity than to pause and look at the horror and listen to the cries.
But, if Herod becomes only a character in the drama of salvation history, then we will complete his mission — and allow for children to be expendable for the sake of the one. This cannot be!
Jewish piety alone will not allow for it. Let us return through Matthew's allusion to the first Exodus. I n the passover seder service, at the very moment when the narrative has brought the family to the crossing of the Red Sea, the liturgy stops abruptly in the midst of the joy the children of Israel express following their narrow escape. It stops, as the liturgy demands, because the Egyptians who were drowned in the receding waters were also children of God — and God cannot be joyful about that. Indeed, each of the plagues is recalled, not only for the miracle they presented to the Egyptian King, but also for the cost they exacted upon the people. At this point in the service, drops of wine are poured out, one for each plague — drops that empty the cup of celebration. This action is not meant to add a note of depression to an otherwise joyous occasion — just to keep the psychic balance. That would be too Protestant. Rather, the liturgy will not allow the perspective that the only persons who counted were the children of Israel. Even the enemy are children of God. And God will not let us forget that. All children count! Not only Jesus!
So, Herod breaks forth upon the stage and unleashes his havoc and children die. It is a troubling scene. Perhaps that is why our modern pericope leaps over the event, by excising the very verses (16-18) involved in the slaughter. If we follow the direction in the Common Lectionary, Herod meets the Magi and hatches the plot and, for some reason, Jesus ends up in Egypt. We escape the murderous scene.
And yet, horrible as it is, the event is not the real problem either. We can account for the event. The abuse of children is commonplace in our own world. Our theology rushes in to include these victims and their families. If we cannot answer why bad things happen to good people, at least we can put God on the side of those who have been hurt. The God of the oppressed So, it is not the death of children who confound our theologies. It is Herod. It is the presence of the abuser. What are we to do with Herod? Here we must follow earlier caution and allow Herod to be present to the mystery of this season. Maybe if we include Herod in this night, as one for whom this night is also meant, he might lead us toward the deeper regions of sacred drama.
To accomplish this we must be careful not to soften his presence by an appeal to a defense of insanity, or that he is only a pawn of Divine intention. He must stand as he is. We cannot protect him to avoid the shock of including him in the manger scene above the fireplace.
These feelings have rushed upon me recently, through my work of counseling. A man has entered my life. He is an older man who has begun to reveal a history of the abuse of young boys. He speaks with little emotion, maybe sadness, maybe mostly because he feels that people misunderstand him. He had profound inner urges he argues, and he needed a way to have them satisfied. Young boys became the solution. He is convinced, "I didn't hurt them."
I do not want to hear this. "Bullshit!" I scream on the inside but withhold my judgment from him. I am not sure why. As I write this, I have just dropped off my youngest son at a youth group. I cannot help but think of the man. If I were a father of one of his "willing" boys, I fear what I might do, It is not difficult for me to get in touch with my own rage. Better, says Jesus, that a millstone be hung around his neck than that one of these little ones be injured. And Jesus did not have his own children!
I am also a pastor and I am aware that some churches have, or have had, camp counselors and pastors who are now being sued by men who, as boys, were sexual victims of these persons. In several cases, these persons were allowed to continue in their ministries after leaders were aware of their outrageous conducL My instinctive rage — toward these pedophiles, especially ones who held positions of trust and and who were known to extol their virtues to the larger community while secretly undoing the inner joy and innocence of young boys, and toward those who kept the secret confidential to protect personal and institutional reputations — wants them to be cast out and brought to the islands vacated by the lepers. There they can remain — the pedophiles doing with each other what they desire most with their confidants standing guard.
And yet, sitting across from this man, I can feel only sadness, deep and penetrating sadness. Is it because of my role as pastoral counselor? Is the sadness covering other feelings. Do I fear him or do I fear what he means to me, what he unleashes in me just by sitting across from me and telling his story? Certainly there is a normal sadness that accompanies a 6S-year-old man who sees everything slipping away from him — wife, children, grandchildren, friends, and church; a life lived in secret and undone as the silence begins to break. He sits like Job, across from me, but cannot claim to be righteous. His meager attempts at defense cannot begin to reclaim the weight he feels and the emptiness he faces. He cannot summon up enough anger or find enough energy anywhere else to impell him toward an audience with God.
Were this the story of one of the children, wrestling with the turbulence left in the wake of the molestation, it would be more natural to welcome God into the scene. God rightly belongs with the victims, with the oppressed, with the weak and the helpless. Our theological orientation supports an active ministry with the injured and the innocent. From this vantage point, we might ask the ancient theodical question, "Where is God and why did this happen?" And we could answer in usual chorus: because there are sick people who cannot control their sexual needs, because persons in authority have too much power, because the weak and innocent are the most vulnerable, because it is a dangerous world, because God gives us freedom and we abuse it. And, though God does not cause such events to happen, God is with us in the midst of our suffering and in the gathering of those resources that play such a vital role in the attempt to recover from that deep injury.
But what about the man, the abuser? Should we draw him under this theological umbrella by acknowledging him to be a victim, also? I wonder. Was he also abused? Is he acting out his victimization by being the victimizer? Does it help to name his disorder as sexual addiction or pedophilia? Does a mental health diagnosis help in his defense? Does God get to be with the abuser because he has a disease or disorder that makes him as much a victim as the children?
This problem is heightened further as recent revelations of pedophilia in the church become matters for civil and criminal dispute, involving victim, abuser, and those in leadership positions who knew about the offense but did nothing. The church finds itself in the position of minimizing the abuse and the secrecy surrounding it, and defending the abuser rather than advocating for the victim. To do otherwise would risk large sums of money, the loss of which the church would like to hold to a minimum. It seems a strange position for a church to be in. The very strangeness of it indicates the problem that arises when God and gospel are brought near to the one who abuses. The tension in this proximity is not eased by appealing to the old line, "God loves the sinner but hates the sin," the line most often used to ease the conscience of a church uneasy with real sinners in their midst. "You know that abuser we put in jail because of what he did? God still loves him!"
When I think of the man who sits across from me and what he has done, I cannot separate the two. I do not think that it would be helpful for either of us to do that. Indeed, if there is anything to be hopeful about, it is his courage to confess as much as he has: to have the "this is me and this is what I've done" brought together for the first time. Therefore, God must be in the midst of both — if God is in either.
Jung argues this profoundly in the last chapter of Modern Man in Search of A Soul:
.. .people forget that even doctors have moral scruples, and that certain patients' confessions are hard even for a doctor to swallow. Yet the patient does not feel himself accepted unless the very worst in him is accepted too. No one can bring this about by mere words; it comes only through the doctor's sincerity and through his attitude towards himself and his own evil side. We cannot change anything unless we accept iL Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses. I am the oppressor of the person I condem, not his friend and fellow-sufferer.
That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ — all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least amongst them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself — that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness — that I myself am the enemy who must be loved — what then l As a rule, the Christian's attitude is then reversed; there is no longer any question of love or longsuffering; we say to the brother within us "raca," and condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide it from the world; we refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves. We therefore do not hesitate, but lightheartedly choose the complicated course of remaining in ignorance about ourselves while busying ourselves with other people and their troubles and sins. This activity lends us an air of virtue, and we thus deceive ourselves and those around us. There are countless people who can do this with impunity, but not everyone can, and these few break down on the road to Damascus and succumb to a neurosis.
Neurosis is an inner cleavage — the state of being at war with oneself. Everything that accentuates this cleavage makes the patient worse, and everything that mitigates it tends to heal the patient. What drives people to war with themselves is the intuition or the knowledge that they consist of two persons in opposition to one another. This is why modern man has heard enough about guilt and sin. He is sorely enough beset by his own bad conscience, and wants rather to learn how he is to reconcile himself with his own nature — how he is to love the enemy in his own heart and call the wolf his brother.
When we mess with the text and avoid the killing of the children and the one who orders their death, we block this great hope for ourselves. If we push away the evil that is in our midst (Herod), it means that we must also deny the evil that dwells within our own shadows. And the equation must be reversed: to accept the evil in ourselves means we must also embrace the evil in others. It cannot be otherwise unless we determine to live as fragmented people, at war within ourselves and with each other. Herod strides upon the stage to assure that this mystery is one that touches our full humanity. To paraphrase family therapist John Bradshaw, unless Herod is human, there can be no hope for our humanity. Herod preserves for us the strangeness of the Gospel which addresses all that we are as humans.
Luther understood this as he wrote: "So then the gist of the Gospel is this; no man is so high or may rise so high that he need not fear becoming the lowliest. Conversely, no one has fallen, or may fall, so deeply as to preclude all hope of becoming the highest. By saying, 'The first shall be last,' Christ takes all presumption away from you and forbids you to exalt yourself above any prostitute even though you are Abraham, David, Peter, or Paul. But by saying 'The last shall be first,' he guards you against all despair and forbids you to cast yourself under the feet of any saint even though you are Pilot, Herod, Sodom, or Gomorrah."