16When 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.17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:18“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.” Matthew 2:16-18
This is a disturbing passage, isn’t it? After the simple beauty of the birth narrative, and the wondrous story of wise men from the east following the star to find Jesus and bring him gifts, we get this. It’s an abrupt ending to what had been a merry little Christmas. Yes, merry, right up until the point where the evil king starts killing innocent babies.
Well, I could easily dismiss this story by pointing out how it probably never happened. There is no historic record of such an event ever occurring. The only place we read about it anywhere is here in Matthew’s gospel. And Matthew made it a point to insert stuff throughout his narrative to prove that Jesus was a fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures. The parallel he draws here, of course, is with Moses. Remember how all the babies were killed in that story and Moses was saved? And remember where it all took place? Yes, it happened to be the place to which Mary and Joseph fled with their son Jesus. So, Matthew just threw this in because that’s what Matthew does, and we don’t need to fret over it.
But I’m afraid that might be letting us off the hook too easily. Whether or not it actually happened, it seems to be an important part of the story, the truth that Matthew wants us to see.
In American culture, there is typically an important figure missing from our nativity scenes. Are you aware of that? In other cultures, you will often find a figure dressed in a robe, with his arms folded and a great big frown on his face. When I first saw this I had to ask, “Who is that mean looking guy?” “It’s Herod,” I was told. And I thought, how weird is that? I mean, does a mass murderer belong with the angels and the shepherds and the wise men? Is Herod really a part of the Christmas story?
When the Magi ask him about the king of the Jews, he’s miffed because, after all HE is king of the Jews. Seeing a threat, he has the power to eliminate it, and he exercises that power. Matthew never tells us that the Messiah was born meek and mild. He tells us that, from the get-go, Jesus entered this world to challenge the powerful. And at the very beginning of the story, Matthew tells us how it’s all going to end.
Matthew’s inclusion of the story of Herod reminds us that Jesus was born into a world mired in violence. Now, if you’ve ever read the Old Testament, you know that it’s just about the most violent book ever written. Its pages are dripping with blood. Often, the violence is attributed to God. God is angry with people. And when God is angry, somebody’s gotta pay.
If you’re one of those people who think God wrote the Bible, God paints a disturbing picture of himself. But, if you happen to be someone who believes, as I do, that the Bible was written by people who spoke from their own limited understanding at the time, their perception of God is more interesting than disturbing. Those who told the stories we have in our Old Testament were trying to make sense of the world and their relationship with God, just as we all are. And they were speaking from their own limited experience. They held a primitive worldview that is reflected in a primitive understanding of God. God rewards the good and punishes the wicked, and you’d better do everything you can to appease God’s anger because when God gets angry, somebody’s gotta pay. That’s a primitive understanding of God.
Jesus said, “Do you really think that’s what God is like? That God smites entire cities just because they don’t do what he wants them to do? Oy! Nothing could be further from the truth. God isn’t about violence. God is about love. And to be a part of God’s reign, you need to be about mercy, and compassion. That means that when someone strikes you on your right cheek, you don’t strike them back, you turn the other cheek. That means that you don’t fight your enemies, you pray for them. That means you don’t retaliate when someone does you wrong, you forgive them. It means the ones who appear to have the most power are, in fact powerless. And the ones who appear to be the lowest of the low, are the greatest. The secret to being happy in this life can’t be found in proving how much better you are than other people; it’s about giving yourself completely in love.” “If you want to follow me, deny yourself,” he said. “Take up your cross and follow me.” He doesn’t say anything about becoming successful in the eyes of the world, or holy and pure people. “Deny yourself,” he says. Stop living as the façade you’re presenting to the world, the person who has it all together, and get real. Be your authentic self. The person God created you to be, created in the image of a God who is love.
That’s what Jesus taught, again and again, in as many ways as possible. His life was about non-violence. The bottom line for Jesus, the new commandment he wanted to impress upon his followers more than anything else was, “Love one another.” He said this after he demonstrated what that love looks like. It looks like a master getting down on his hands and knees and washing the feet of his students.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s violence. And, by violence, I don’t just mean physically harming another. I mean whenever we assert our power over another in a way that is harmful to them, that’s violence. To demonstrate what love looks like, as an act completely devoid of violence, Jesus washed their feet.
I’m not sure we can ever really understand Jesus if we don’t come to terms with the sin of violence that has permeated our world from the beginning. I don’t know if we can ever rid ourselves of our addiction to violence, but I do know that our violent nature is not what connects us to God. What connects us to God is our loving nature. Jesus was all love without the violence. And when we follow Jesus, we love.
We seem to have a blind spot when it comes to violence. Maybe because we we are so accustomed to violence in our culture that we have little awareness of what it’s done to us. It takes something big for us to notice, something so shocking that we can hardly bear the thought of it. Like the slaughter of innocent babies in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, or the slaughter of innocent school children in Newtown, a year ago. We’ll look at these events as if they are anomalies, strange occurrences that appeared out of the blue, for no apparent reason, and we wonder, how could such things happen? When, in fact, they are the inevitable result of what happens when you eat, sleep and breathe violence.
We have an addiction to violence in our culture. And the first step in dealing with an addiction is admitting that you have a problem.
- Have you ever looked at all the shows that are on T.V., movies, video games, the sports we follow, and considered how much of our entertainment is based on violence?
- Isn’t it incredible how even a great tragedy like Sandy Hook couldn’t get us to budge an inch by passing a single law that would make gun regulation more reasonable?
- How might our leaders operate differently if they stopped working so hard to exert their power over others by proving they’re right and everyone else is wrong?
- How would our parenting be different if we stopped teaching children that the way to resolve conflict is through violence? Let me be more specific here. Yes, I’m talking about spanking. Or insisting that the child who is bullied at school stand up for himself and fight back.
- For that matter, will we ever stop belittling other people to make ourselves feel bigger?
- How would our interactions with the people we encounter in our everyday lives be different if we didn’t see them as obstacles to manipulate or control so we can get what we want from them?
- How would the way we do business change if we weren’t so preoccupied with obliterating the competition?
- What would it be like if the whole concept of war became obsolete and the resources we now devote to building up our military strength could instead be spent on acts of justice and compassion for the world’s poor?
- How would our relationships with those closest to us be transformed if we could give ourselves in love by forgiving, and showing mercy, and daring to reveal our vulnerability to one another?
But that’s not the way of the world, is it? If you want to survive in this world, you have to be strong. If you let people see your weakness, you’re going to get trampled. I mean, what would happen if a person really lived without violence like that in our violent world?
Well, we know what would happen. And I suppose that’s what we’re trying to avoid. Jesus lived a life of non-violence, a life given in love. And, it got him crucified. But even then, he met that act of supreme violence with love. He could have cursed those who nailed him to that cross. Instead, he continued to deny himself, he forgave them.
Ironically, many Christians completely miss this point, and have used the cross to once again assume that God is angry with us and needed somebody to pay, so Jesus had to be sacrificed. Doesn’t that primitive explanation of the cross completely miss the whole point of Jesus’ life? He died as he lived. As a God who is confronted the violence of this world with love.
So, where does that leave us, as people who want to follow Jesus and yet are, in fact, a lot more like Herod than we are like Jesus? As people who are addicted to violence, how do we love as he loved? Could we turn our church into a twelve-step group that meets regularly to support one another as we struggle with our addiction to violence? I don’t know what it would look like if we dared to be that honest and vulnerable with one another. But I do know that in a church like that, when we read about Jesus’ birth, we would always include Herod in the story.