Matthew 2: 13-15; 19-23
As we end a year of political turmoil and head into an election year, the topic of securing our borders continues to be in the news. This week the Pope noted that migrants have been forced by injustice “to emigrate in the hope of a secure life.” As they have done that, they have run into system abuses, roadblocks, and even torture all over the world. Last week, a bill that passed congress two weeks ago to avoid a government shutdown included money for part of a wall on our southern border. Of course, we know that has to do with keeping out those who come to our country without legal papers or legitimate asylum request. We also know there is a cost to our government for those who are in this country yet are not citizens and who, therefore, are not paying income taxes, though they do pay taxes on goods and gasoline like the rest of us. But why do people come to our country and to other countries? Sometimes it is out of fear; to get away from something or someone. People look for a safe place to raise a family. Ironic, isn’t it, that if Egypt had prohibited Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus from entering their country as described in Matthew chapter 2, the Holy Family would have had difficulty protecting their child from Herod! Gladly, we recall protection stories that have made it into our history books, like the Diary of Anne Frank, when a family in Amsterdam protected Jewish refugees, including her, at great personal cost. Gladly we remember Oscar Schindler, made famous in SCHINDLER’S LIST, protecting Jews from annihilation. Today we look at this Christmas through new eyes, as a Jewish family left Bethlehem and departed Herod’s jurisdiction for their protection.
The text in verse 13 starts out “After they had left,” and of course, this means when the Magi, or Wiseman, left. We recall that God wisely chose a human father for his son who listened to his dreams. That quality would come in handy again today as God’s angel—Gabriel— gave an imperative command, “Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” What would it be like, parents, to believe your child, in this case your baby, was in danger of being kidnapped and killed? Would every instinct in your body be called to attention to protect your child? In this case, the killing machine was not one of today’s terrorists or a man named Hitler, but he was just as bad: a maniacal, powerful, Middle Eastern Dictator self named “Herod The Great,” who had proven his threats in the past by killing some of his sons, his wives, and his armies to keep them from seizing control of his empire. He ruled all of Israel in his day, and no part of Israel would have been outside of his domain. But Egypt was; it had been under Roman control since 30 B.C. Scholars like Raymond Brown and William Barclay told us that Egypt was already a place that had welcomed so many refugee Jews to the outskirts of its cities that there were already a number of Jewish communities there. Mary and Joseph would not have been the first to seek their safety in the land of the pyramids. There is no record of a border patrol or checkpoint: they just migrated and found a place to live for probably two years. Jews in Egypt, like Jews who left Germany for Austria, or for the United States, or other countries, came with their God and their hard work ethic. We do not know if they were liked or despised; but we know that they got to be there, probably as part of a close-knit community, for quite a length of time. What would make a Jew leave his homeland to find safe rest in a foreign land? In this case, it was an angel, a warning, and a belief that the threats that would come to pass would have been deadly if they’d stayed.
Then we come to verses 16-18. Often dramatized as the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” it is depicted as the killing of many children two years old and under. Even today, I flinch when I hear that a child has died from a bomb, or being stuck at a checkpoint, or from disease or lack of proper nutrition. C
Children dying grieves not just their mothers and fathers, but me as well, and probably you. So for Mary and Joseph, there was no time to extend their stay in Bethlehem because their newborn was in danger. Going home to Nazareth was no answer since Herod ruled that territory as well and the family might have been discovered. So under cover of darkness, Joseph—again the right man chosen to protect and raise the Son of God—got his family ready and headed out, not to a promised land, but to the land known to Jews from the Exodus story; a place where Moses had been born, a place of civilization and pluralism and safety. This was not the first time a Jew had traveled to Egypt for safety. Raymond Brown reminds us that “It was the classic land of refuge for those fleeing from tyranny in Palestine. When King Solomon sought to put Jeroboam to death in 1 Kings 11:40, he ‘arose and fled to Egypt.’ When King Jehoiakim sought to kill the prophet Uriah, son of Shemaiah in Jeremiah 26:21, he fled and escaped to Egypt; and about 172 B.C. the high priest Onias IV fled to Egypt to escape from King Antiochus Epiphanes, [the horrible ruler in the Daniel story.] [BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH, Doubleday, 1979, p. 203] Whether Mary and Joseph and Jesus just went over the border or deep into Egypt is a matter of speculation and legend; but that Christmas journey saved the life of their child, the one born to save the world.
Historians tell us that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. in all likelihood. (Yes, B.C. (before Christ) because Dionysius Exiguus in 525 A.D. and Pope Gregory XIII with his Gregorian Calendar, miscalculated the date for Jesus’ birth, which was most likely around 6 B.C (since it is recorded that Herod died around 4 B.C.) Before he died, however, Herod the Great divided up Israel and bequeathed a portion to each of his three sons: to Herod Archelaus, who was almost as ruthless as his father, he gave Judea which included Jerusalem and Bethlehem; to his son Herod Antipas, who was also a strong and feared ruler, he gave Galilee, which included Nazareth and Capernaum; and to his son Herod Philip, he gave the northeastern section of Israel including the region that was later named Caesarea Philippi. Joseph decided to return to his hometown of Nazareth and go around the territory of Judea to avoid Archelaus. The family finally put down roots in Nazareth according to verse 23. Matthew says this was done to fulfill a prophesy saying, “He will be called a Nazarene.” Interesting, because there is no recorded prophet who said that in the Old Testament, about the Messiah or anyone else! But what we do learn is that Nazareth was the perfect setting for Joseph to raise his stepson. Both Mary and Joseph had family members there for support; construction of Roman structures in nearby Sephoris gave stone masons and carpenters like Joseph, and later Jesus, the opportunity for steady employment. With a short climb up the back hill from Nazareth, the boy Jesus could have seen the mount where the great Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal years before; and he could see the valley of Megiddo, where two great pathways crossed: the way of the sea and the north-south way, and where more battles had been fought then any place in the world-the place often called Armageddon or (Har-Meggido). So the boy Jesus had the perfect perch from which to see the world and to grow into its Savior. But it never would have happened had there not been a country, like Egypt, that welcomed refuges into their land. Today we are thankful for God’s angels, for Joseph’s open heart, and for the country that gave safe haven to the Holy Family.
Let us pray: O God of Wonder and God of Might: we have had a glimpse of your divine plan to bring Jesus into the world and protect him from harm until his time had come. Your steadfast love makes us feel humble and grateful. On the cusp of a new year, some here are ready to live differently. Fill them and let changes in their lives let Christ’s light shine through them to others. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 29, 2019