Open Matthew 2:16.
Beautiful. Tender. Vulnerable. Helpless. Disarming. How can anyone hate a newborn? How can an infant seem like a threat? You’d have to be power-crazed to kill a baby. Herod is. He executes all the baby boys in Bethlehem. There can be no rival “king of the Jews” (2:16).
Herod’s acts are treason: he attempts to assassinate of the heavenly king’s heir. It’s part of the long-standing war over who rules the earth. On one side of this battle is the oppressor of God’s people, bearing down on them with the military might of Rome. On the other side is an infant bearing the promise of restoring heaven’s rule on earth. But how can a toddler stand up to a tyrant?
Herod rules by dealing death. Conversely, the heavenly ruler sends a messenger to save lives. The angel warns the exuberant magi to bypass Herod (2:12). He warns Mary and Joseph to escape to Egypt, outside Herod’s domain (2:13). They escape on this occasion, but what will happen as the child grows? How will this confrontation of powers work out if Jesus is to rescue his people and restore divine rule (1:21-22)? That is precisely the story Matthew is introducing.
Herod didn’t start the war. History is the story of the rebellion against God’s reign. Before Rome forced herself on Israel there were the Seleucids and the Ptolemies, Greece, Persia, Babylon, and Assyria. Before that it was the Philistines, Ammonites, Midianites, Moabites, and Canaanites. Pharaoh was the “Herod” back in Moses’ time: he too ordered the death of the Hebrew children — labour pains as Israel was birthed as a nation.
And that’s just the nations that oppressed Israel! Other nations have their stories of oppression as well. Thousands upon thousands still flee war and oppression in the Middle East. To them, placing their lives at risk crossing the Mediterranean seems safer than staying where they were. As you think of Jesus’ family fleeing to Egypt, don’t picture it as an isolated event. Their story isn’t unique. It’s the story of so many families, replicated across continents, and across history.
In fact, it feels overwhelming. Countries in Europe that have helped refugees this year feel swamped. How many people can you rescue without sinking your own boat? What’s the right balance? Lebanon’s population is 4.5 million, and it now has 1.5 million refugees.
We cannot hear the Christmas story as spiritual folklore disconnected from what’s wrong on earth. Matthew says that the powers that caused Israel’s captivity were prepared to kill babies so they would not have to yield to God’s Messiah. Jesus is a very different kind of king. God-with-us turns out to be a toddler fleeing from a tyrant’s sword. The heavenly sovereign joins us in our suffering—as a Middle Eastern asylum seeker!
Can we look into his face and say, “Turn back the boats!” Can we double the pain of families fleeing violence and oppression by locking them up for years in in detention centres, all because we’re selfish about our own lifestyle? On QandA (episode 42, 14 Nov 2016), the deputy prime minster (Barnaby Joyce) commended on why Australia uses Mannus Island and Nauru: “You have to have control of your borders. If people don’t think you have control of your borders, you won’t get re-elected.” I love his candour—saying what both sides of politics are thinking. But it illustrates how compromised human rulers are when they rely on people to give them power. It boils down to, “If you have to do evil to stay in power, then you have to do evil.” How is that any different from King Herod?
Death underpins evil. We saw that again when the Immigration Minister’s comments led to death threats against another politician. Please, don’t disconnect Matthew 2 from what’s wrong with the world.
God steps into human history to resolve the problem of evil. He does this not by wielding a bigger sword to crush his enemies but by entering our suffering. We don’t expect God as a child refugee. Will that work, Matthew wants us to ask? Can he save us from evil and restore us to his government without doing what evil rulers do?
That’s the big question Matthew is raising. It’s what he calls the good news of the kingdom.
What others are saying
Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA):
M. Daniel Carroll R., Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008):
The joy of the nativity scene and the wonder of the visit of the magi are overshadowed by the unhappy account of the senseless death of innocent children and the flight of refugees. The migration of this family locates the Jesus story within a movement that spans history, of people desiring a better life or escaping the threat of death.
Donn Kittle, “Matthew: Messiah’s Authentication And Opposition” in Central Bible Quarterly 14:3 (1971) 8:
The last group of men who represented an attitude towards His reception was the court of Herod (2:16 ff). Herod’s open rebellion and attempted murder of the King who was to reign in Jerusalem was nothing but a foreshadowing of the hatred which came from Christ’s own people in a few years.
2-minute videos from Australian comedians Clarke and Dawe: