Sunday, January 01, 2012

A World Filled Only With “Us”.

Matthew 2: 10-18

I’m sharing with you all today a scripture that gets passed over a lot. It only is mentioned in Matthew, and is what causes Jesus to fulfill another scripture, and to conform to an archetype that the Bible uses a lot, that what happens that is the most important for the people of God often begins by leaving Egypt.

I have taken it out of story order to be able to talk about it this Sunday, the first day of the year, the first Sunday of the year. The lectionary would have us talk about something else, and the traditional Sunday for the wise men is the feast of the Epiphany, which falls next Sunday. After that is the Baptism of the Lord, and I don’t want to skip those, so we talk about this scripture today.

The traditional title for this text is “the Slaughter of the Innocents.” It is a particularly disturbing scripture, up there with Jephthah’s daughter in terms of senselessness, and it may well be another one of those texts that make you say “that doesn’t beoming in there”. But there it is, and old old minds made sure the story was told, so it’s up to us to pay attention.

This occurrence, sad to say, is certainly of a piece with the rights of rulers at that time, and there are even times today when we hear of similar things, such as Saddam Hussein unleashing poison gas on a whole Kurdish village during his reign. Perhaps that is one of the things that we can be thankful for, as Americans: no matter what you may think or feel, no matter what your chosen media outlet may lead you to believe, eliminating an opponent by killing all of their children is not within the scope or capabilities of either Republican or Democrat.

But it was within the religious and governmental rights of Herod. The wise men, the Magi, the astrologers, whatever, they had told him that a king had been born in Bethlehem, and it had been foretold in the stars. Herod was, I would expect, not a biblical scholar, so he was not aware of the prophecies of the coming messiah in the Hebrew scriptures other than what he was told, and to those who are of an undiscerning mind, astrology is the same as prophecy is the same as history, and all of it can be truth.

As is typical of the rulers of that day, and to a certain extent of our own, they are jealous of their reign, and hypervigilant in watching for rivals. It is a ruler for life, and to be able to pick one’s own successor is an expression of the continuing power they can wield. To be visited by foreigners, intelligent foreigners, probably smarter than you, and told that a king has been born in your region, and for it not to be your son? Can you see how threatening that would be to Herod? Back in verse three, it says Herod is frightened, and in verse eight, it says he sends them to Bethlehem, and tells them to report back to him where they found the new baby king.

To be clear, they don’t. Perhaps more lives would have been saved if they had, because when Herod realizes they have gone home by another road, he chooses to send soldiers to kill, as the Scripture says, every child under two years old in and around bethlehem. The Bible does not say every male child, but every child.

And his doing so was his right. There was no concept of human rights, there was no worldwide court for human rights. In part the religion of his region allows him to make such decisions, and there is no law against what he did.

Religion, in the form of a patchwork of astrology, prophecy, and something akin to what later cultures will call the “divine right of kings” is what gives him the right to issue that order.

Religion can make us do funny things. It can give us guidelines for how to think and act about difficult ideas, it can give us guidelines for how to live. But it can also get in the way of being a decent human being. Ironically, religion and faith can get in the way of being a good person.

I read a quote this week that expresses this perfectly. It’s attributed to Karen Armstrong, who is an author and a religious scholar. Here is what she says:

“If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology.” ― Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (pv)

What does religion bring you to do? Does your personal faith in God impel you to love God’s people, or are there people you exclude from that? Does a relationship with Jesus Christ lead you to help the poor and weak, feed the hungry, and share what you have, or is being a Christian a way of knowing who is in and who is out? Is being saved a matter of knowing who to vote for?

As we start this new year, I would ask that you review the assumptions you have made about your faith. Has your relationship with Christ made you kinder, gentler, more respectful, more caring? Has it made you more active? Has it caused you to express sympathy with people that others mock? Has it made you more aware of the plight of so many people in this world?

That is what faith in Jesus is supposed to do. Help us, drive us, open our eyes, to the needs of the world. It is not meant to separate us from a scary world, a world filled with “them”, but to engage us in a sad and needy world, a world filled only with “us”.

Faith calls us to love the whole world, no exceptions; to be the light of God, to be the evidence of Christ, with strength given by the Holy Spirit.

Happy new year, and God’s blessings for you in 2012!

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