by William Loader, Murdoch University, Australia
Scripture: Matthew 13-23
The first half of the chapter is the standard text scheduled for Epiphany, which happens to fall on a Sunday this year (next Sunday). It will be hard to treat today's text without some reference to the first half of the chapter.
The whole chapter is serious story telling, symbolic narrative about real things. Feeding into the story is the account of the threat to Israel from Balak; and Balaam's reluctant intervention and, finally, his prophecy that a star and sceptre would arise from Israel. The story is found in Numbers 22-24 and the prophecy in 24:17. The Qumran covenanters of the Dead Sea applied the prophecy to its two hoped for messiahs: the star symbolizing the priestly, the sceptre the warrior royal messiah. It appears to be used similarly in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Other groups used it of a single Messiah. Doubtless the prophecy played a role in the designation of Simon ben Kosebah who led the second great revolt against Rome in 132-135 CE as Simon bar Kochba ('son of a star'). In our story it finds its echo in the star of Bethlehem.
Typically for such narratives there is more than one stream of allusions. We not only have Israel going down into Egypt and being called up out of Egypt in the Exodus as God's son (hence the quotation of Hosea 11:1 in 2:15), but we also have echoes of the attempt of the Pharoah to kill Hebrew infants which led to Moses being set among the bulrushes. Jewish legends about this event also have dream warnings just as we have here and it is very likely that these were known to Matthew in composing the story.
One way to help people escape from the romanticism of Christmas is to help them see what kind of a story this is and how it works. It is saying in its distinctive way: history is repeating itself. Also: here is the true child of God, the true representative of Israel. Here is the Messiah, the star of Israel. It is making very powerful statements about Jesus. It is showing the best of the world's wise - here: astrologers - recognizing Jesus and showing that the creation itself acclaims him by the code to be read in the sky. Also: the hope of Israel's prophets that the nations, even their kings, would come to Zion to acknowledge God, bearing gifts, finds fulfillment. The story is celebrating the Gentile mission to come and by contrast reflecting on rejection by the people who ought to have acknowledged him. The pain of the latter is in the title 'King of the Jews'; Herod will fail to find the child, but later rulers will not and that title will stand as accusation above the crucified Jesus.
The narrative is packed with allusions. It can be quite enriching to explain to people today what these are. Better to take the risk of seeming too much to be a teacher and giver of information than simply to leave the story without helping people face its mythical quality. Otherwise, as is so often when teaching fails, people will assume that, yes, this is supposed to be real history and their faith will be just as unreal, uncritical and unconnected with the world in which we live.
The answer is not to try to squeeze the essence out of the rich allusions of the text in the hope of producing some kind of statement of meaning reduced to words and definitions. These stories invite us to play, but we need to play them over into our own territory. To the sensitive imagination the threatened ruler absurdly massacring the helpless has allusions to events in our own age. Matthew, is, after all not telling us about the baby and not just telling us about the past history of the adult Jesus but also reflecting the pain which his own community has faced. This pain belongs in the Christmas season if Christ is not to be trivialized. We have our stories of infants stolen from their families.
It is a story of rejection but also of inclusion with a sense that to be in touch with this one is to be truly in touch with life and its rhythms, which, for the ancients, were defined by the stars. We need to find our way of saying this. It does not make a lot of sense to try to connect the event to real astronomy, though attempts continue to be made. The best point to a conjunction of major planets around this period or more generally to comets. Stories existed about astral phenomena at the birth of significant people; it was the stuff of legend, which mixes observed phenomena with narratives designed to herald significance of life achievement.
The narrative invites participation, so that we, too, might kneel before the absurdity of a helpless child. O come, let us adore him! But it has to be the one defined by what he became and did, not just another typical piece of human adulation which so often amounts to giving away one's dignity and surrendering one's accountability. The one who rushes to do obeisance will often be the first to oppress when the roles are reversed. Adoration is dangerous if the awe is at power and not at love.
Notice how the passage ends with reference to Herod's son, Archelaus. Escape from Herod did not mean a happy ending. There is a refugee mentality here touched in the story, not because Jesus actually went down to Egypt, but because the life of grace must dodge between the powers. In our day we see such vulnerability in the desperation of asylum seekers and their initiatives to escape oppression and find a better life for their families, cast adrift on the seas, vulnerable to apparently well meaning politicians who are driven by other agendas and others who just want to make a fast buck. Christians who called themselves Nazarenes would also recognize their theme here, and for others the choice of Nazareth is the choice of strategic obscurity.
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