By Robyn Whitaker
Tyranny, violence, and genocide are not usually associated with the Christmas story. Those of us who attend church at Christmas probably hope to sing a few rousing carols and be reminded of God’s wonderful gift of love.
This Christmas season our lectionary directs us to Matthew’s version of that first Christmas, and in his version of events lies profound violence and the kind of political upheaval that could well be describing much of our contemporary world.
When people claim “Jesus was a refugee” it is Matthew’s version of the Gospel they have in mind. Accompanying the classic story of Joseph and Mary’s miraculous pregnancy, Matthew’s gospel includes material about Jesus’s infancy we find nowhere else: the claim that Jesus’s family fled to Egypt to escape the genocide of male, Jewish babies.
Matthew portrays the infant Jesus as “King of the Jews” early on (2:2). In doing so, the author immediately sets Jesus in political opposition to the ruling King of Judea, King Herod. The interesting part of the story is Herod’s response to news of a new king.
Matthew tells us Herod wanted to “destroy” the child. He is convinced this baby is a substantial threat to his throne. After failing to uncover Jesus’s specific location, Herod orders all baby boys under two who live in or near Bethlehem to be killed. His desire to destroy the one whom he sees as a political opponent results in the murder an entire generation of males. Mary and Joseph flee, taking their infant son Jesus to seek asylum in Egypt.
Historic evidence for widespread infanticide in Bethlehem around the time of Jesus’s birth is scarce and several scholars have questioned the historicity of Matthew’s gospel when it comes to these events. Certainly Matthew is doing something theological here too in portraying Jesus as the new Moses who comes out of Egypt. However, to ignore this violent part of the story ignores the political claims that accompany the theological ones.
“Jesus’s early followers viewed him as someone whose circumstances were thoroughly entangled with broader social, political, and economic forces,” says New Testament scholar, Robert Myles.
“While Matthew’s infancy narrative is historically suspect, Matthew composed his Gospel in the wake of a major war, social upheaval, and refugee crises that were especially pronounced in first-century Palestine. It makes sense that the author would tell his stories of Jesus with an eye to such concerns.”
Critics may claim that to call Jesus a “refugee” is to miss the difference between ancient and moderns notions of nation state and citizenship. This is technically correct. Yet it remains true that the Bible depicts Jesus as the child of parents who fled life-threatening violence at the hands of a tyrant. In this sense, Jesus’s childhood is analogous to the experience of some 25 million refugees around the world today who are displaced due to violence, persecution or war.
As Christmas looms, Australian politicians continue to enforce harsh laws with regard to asylum seekers, including the recent repeal of Medevac. The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has been fairly open about two things in his political life – his hard stance against asylum seekers who arrive by boat and being a person of Christian faith. The way these views interact is confusing to many of us who share his faith.
If Jesus was a refugee, how can one raise hands in worship of Jesus while simultaneously detaining offshore children or denying asylum to those who share so many of his experiences? How can one disconnect one’s love for Jesus from love for others? After all, Matthew also teaches that to care for “the least” is literally how one cares for Jesus (Matthew 25:40).
Some in our community will be facing a different kind of violence and terror this Christmas. Many are homeless due to bushfires or nervously face the possibility of fire destroying their homes and lives. Many grieve the loss of loved ones in the year that has been, knowing it will be the first Christmas without them. For others, the fact that incidences of domestic violence increase at Christmas means they will face violence in their own homes.
For those for whom Christmas time might seem difficult and without hope, Matthew’s version of the Jesus story might resonate. It testifies to a God who enters into a world that was as violent and chaotic as our own. It is a story of how God chose to become human: to become vulnerable, to face evil and to know loss. Jesus is not a king who abuses his power but rather a king who voluntarily surrenders his power. A king who ultimately will defeat evil and bring life.
One aspect of the “good news” of the baby Jesus story in Matthew is that his family return home after the tyrannical King Herod dies. Jesus grew up surrounded by people who shared his faith, his language and his culture. Most refugees today will never have the luxury of return. Good news for them, however, might be the chance of a peaceful and meaningful life.
Robyn is Senior Lecturer in New Testament at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity, and co-host of By the Well, a podcast on the lectionary for preachers.