This is probably one of the most challenging passages of Scripture that comes in our lectionary passages. As difficult as it is, we must face these challenges head-on and look for meaning through all the carnage. Sure, there are questions, why would God allow such things to happen? If God could warn one family, why not all of them? As difficult as the passage is, the answers are even more difficult if there are even answers to the question.
I am no biblical literalist, so from the outset, there is no evidence in the historical record that this event took place. Instead, scholars believe Matthew is using a story of great horror to showcase Jesus’ eventual death; why he chose this way to describe it goes beyond my understanding, but we are left with it, and we cannot hide from it.
Although we are only a week from the birth story, we have kicked things into high gear. First, the shepherds have come and gone, and now, the Magi have also come and gone. We have yet to hear much about these Magi or Wise Men, but they take center stage in the story today. We hear more about them next week when we celebrate Epiphany, so for this week, let’s leave it at that, they outsmarted the King, and he was not happy.
With everyone gone, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are by themselves for what might be the first time since Jesus was born.
What is often overlooked in this passage is God’s faithfulness that is woven throughout the passage. The family takes a journey escaping death threats and a violent ruler’s anxieties in a story of three distinct sections held together by dreams, divine action, and geographic movement with a ton of symbolism.
Matthew is writing to a predominantly Jewish audience, and because of that, he wants to show that Jesus is the long-awaited Christ. Matthew quotes the Hebrew Scriptures more than 40 times, indicating that the story of Jesus is part of God’s continued faithfulness to Israel. Matthew seeks to proclaim and confess that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah and has come to fulfill Scripture. The promises made to Abraham and his children are realized in this child, and Matthew wants to make that point. The Magi, who are not Jewish and thus outsiders, are symbolic of the fulfillment of humanity’s hopes and that Jesus’ salvific work will not be confined to the Jews but to everyone.
We have another dream sequence; this is the third if you are keeping score. In this dream, Joseph receives instructions to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Joseph’s actions show his continued trust in God and obedience to what is being asked of him. He does this without question; he answers yes to God and does what is asked.
Another Scripture seems to be fulfilled here. Reaching back to Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (2:15). Hosea is not usually considered a Messianic text but is used by Matthew to link the story of Jesus with the story of Israel. Matthew leads us to consider a connection between Herod and Pharaoh and illustrates that the family of Jesus and Jacob found safety in Egypt.
In the passage from Matthew, we hear a quote from Jeremiah about Rachel weeping for her children (31:15). In Jeremiah, Rachel weeps for her children (Israel) in Ramah as they are taken into captivity in Babylon. This passage expresses deep grief, but it is also a passage of hope, looking toward the day they would return. Jeremiah and Matthew name the grief and trauma, and yet, loss and darkness are not the end of the story; hope remains that even amid significant loss and suffering, we can trust in the ultimate faithfulness of God.
Then we have another dream sequence, and Joseph is told to leave Egypt and return to Israel; the danger has passed, and he can go home and establish his home in Nazareth. There are a few reasons why this place was chosen to be the family’s home. First, there may be subtle hints towards Jesus as a Nazarite, one set apart for holy service. There is also a linguistic connection. Again, using Matthew’s desire to link Jesus with the coming Messiah, who will be from the line and branch of David. The Hebrew word for “branch” sounds like “Nazareth,” and this harkens to the passage from Isaiah, the branch that comes from the stump of Jesse (Isa. 11:1).
But the most common seems to be the idea that Jesus hails from an insignificant place, showing God’s continued preference for those on the outskirts of society. There is a contrast between Jesus as King and Herod as King. Jesus lives in a quiet corner of the Roman Empire, offering a ministry of inclusion and restoration. Jesus manifests his power in love and humility. Herod lives in a palace surrounded by wealth and displays his power through violence and killing.
Matthew does a fantastic job linking the story of Jesus with the story of Israel. Both Jesus and the Israelites go to Egypt to seek safety and come back. The stories are linked by water: Israel is guided to deliverance through the Red Sea, and Jesus is declared God’ Son in the Baptism in the Jordan. Israel and Jesus were both tested in the wilderness. Israel cannot uphold their end of the covenant God made with them. Jesus redeems the story and offers a new way and a new outcome.
Jesus’ story redeems humanity’s story, providing hope amid loss and, ultimately, liberation. The story of the incarnation, God becoming human, is a story of power manifested in love and humility. This is a story of joy mingled with loss. We start to see the shadow of the cross in this story as a tiny child threatens a powerful king.
The critical point of this story is that even while suffering and death, we can remember the signs of God’s faithfulness, love, and humility. We cannot forget that hope is found in a child, God incarnate, and in the divine promise of ultimate restoration, not just for Israel but for the whole world.