Christmas 1 • Matthew 2:13–23 •December 26, 2010

by Travis J. Scholl

Talk about good news, bad news. The day after Christmas (“On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…”), and already the evangelist has swept up the holy family to Egypt, and Herod is massacring the innocents of Bethlehem.

Of course, as much as the news might wake us out of our two-turtle-dove stupor, the news was worse for Mary and Joseph and even worse for the mothers of Bethlehem. Not that they probably expected different; they were used to life under the thumb of a paranoid king and a ruthless empire. It is we who experience the culture shock of expecting those in authority to protect the littlest and the least among us but then hearing otherwise. Thank God that they do. Or do they? Perhaps that’s another question for another time.

Back to the text. There is tremendous upheaval and movement in these ten verses of Matthew—from Bethlehem to Egypt, back to Judea, before we end up in Galilee in the backwater town of Nazareth. And all these movements, as well as the massacre enveloped within them, carry prophetic weight. This shouldn’t surprise us, given that this is Matthew’s telling of the Gospel story. Nevertheless, these prophetic reverberations remind us that these are not isolated events and their cause-and-effect are not random.

Indeed, despite the genocidal horror, history is on the side of the little family making their way to Egypt. Egypt: the land of exodus and the Bible’s deep symbol of otherness. New Testament scholar Mark Allan Powell notes the ironic parallels in Matthew’s account of the flight into (not out of) Egypt: “Matthew tells the story of the holy family’s flight to Egypt with incredible irony. In the exodus story, babies were slaughtered in Egypt by the wicked pharaoh. But now, righteous Jews must flee to Egypt to escape a massacre of infants in their own land (Mt 2:16–18). It is not, of course, a detour without precedent: another Joseph, who was also guided by God through dreams, once brought his family here (Gn 37–50). And, as it turns out, Jesus’s sojourn here is a brief one.” [1]

Matthew’s Jesus will rise from Egypt, just like Moses and the wilderness-wanderers before him, and will settle in Galilee, almost outside the boundaries of the “true” Israel of his day, so that there will be no stranger or little one left behind by his messianic mission. He’d see to that. Of course, when the angel tells Joseph, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead” (v. 20), that’s not without irony either. It’s exactly that messianic mission that will get him killed 30 years later.

And I wonder, too, just how foreign—how shocking—this text would sound if our ears weren’t North American. Forced migration and mass violence are not ancient problems; they are problems that the Christian church in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East is confronting as we preach. How comforting it must sound to their ears to know that Jesus started his life as both an immigrant and a refugee. And this text rings in their ears with an urgency that is, shall we say, prophetic.

Indeed, if Matthew and the prophets have anything to tell us about the Christ child—and about what life is like following him—it is that our lives will never be “settled.”

Endnote

[1] Mark Allan Powell, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=12/30/2007&tab=4.

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