Year A. December 23, 2001 Matthew 2: 13-23
Title: “Does environment matter?”
Joseph flees to Egypt with Jesus and Mary because Herod is out to kill the child Jesus. When safe, they return and take up residence in Nazareth.
If Joseph or Mary or both, had told Jesus stories of his infancy, about events he would have been too humanly young to know or remember, Jesus could not have helped but notice the parallels between his childhood experiences and those of Moses. Early on in his life he must have become used to seeing his own life foreshadowed in the lives of the Old Testament “greats.” He must have been struck by the patterns. The parallels were more in the general patterns than in the specific details. This Moses typology is not a major theme in the gospel as such, but it is more explicit in this story than anywhere else.
Now, not all of Jesus’ or Matthew’s information came from Scripture. There were many legends, stories, maxims, etc, that were passed on from generation to generation, as in all cultures as they educate their young. Not all stories were recorded in Scripture. One very popular one, recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus, tells how a sacred scribe, an astrologer?, foretold to Pharaoh the birth of the deliverer of the Hebrews. Alarmed, Pharaoh ordered the slaughter of all young male children. Moses’ father, as the story goes, was told in a dream that his son, the one destined to deliver the Hebrews from Pharaoh, was in mortal danger. So, he took steps to rescue him from the massacre. The details between this story and the story of the slaughter of the innocent children and flight into Egypt are different, but the pattern is the same. The nuances of the story as told by Matthew would not have been lost on a Jewish audience. Jesus is the deliverer of the new Israel as Moses was of the old. God is doing a new thing here, but using the same old pattern. Nor should the irony be lost either. For the moment, innocent children die so that Jesus may be saved, only to have Jesus later die that all might be saved from their sins. Masterfully, Matthew gets Jesus, born in Bethlehem, to Nazareth via Egypt and all of it “in order to fulfill what the Lord has said through the prophet.” Joseph is depicted as the “fulfillment,” of Joseph of the Old Testament. Both interpret dreams and both save their family by going into Egypt. Both subordinated their own dreams of how their lives should and could be to God’s “dreams,” putting his “dreams,” first. Besides alluding to the Old Testament, Matthew also cites it explicitly in five instances in these two introductory chapters of his work. These citations, introduced by a similar formula “This was to fulfill…,” want to show that God prepared for a virginal conception (1: 23), for the birth of the Messiah at Bethlehem (2:6), for his son’s coming back from Egypt (2: 15), for the death of other children near Rachel’s tomb (2:18), and for his going to Nazareth (2: 23). By the end of chapter two, the reader is more familiar with the Old Testament and how it can be applied to later situations.
In verse thirteen, to Egypt: The Romans took over Egypt in 30BC. It was outside Herod’s jurisdiction. Egypt had long been a place of refuge and exile for Jews. It was a logical place to flee to. It was also a theological place. Matthew sees the whole Exodus story- from how Jews got to Egypt to how they got out of Egypt- repeated, although in a higher key, in the Jesus story. If the life of Jesus is relived, repeated, re-presented in the life of the Christian, then the life of Israel was recapitulated in the life of Jesus.
Herod…search…to destroy him: The phrasing here is reminiscent of Pharaoh’s determination to kill Moses according to Exodus 2:15 and “destroy,” appears again in the passion narrative at 27:20.
In verse fourteen, Joseph rose and took the child: This phrase is repeated four times in this story in verses thirteen, fourteen, twenty and twenty-one, twice by an angel in the imperative mood and twice by the narrator in the indicative mood. Matthew is making very clear that Joseph is obedient to God’s “dreams,” God’s word, no matter where it takes him and under what circumstances. He is presented as the model disciple. Like God, as the heavenly Father of Jesus, who becomes also “Son,” so the foster father of Jesus becomes also Jesus’ “son,” in his role as disciple.
In verse fifteen, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”: Matthew gives us a lesson in “patterns,” of revelation as opposed to “details.” In fact the quotation from Hosanna 11:1 is calling the son Hosanna, but Matthew has “my son,” out of Egypt, whereas the story as told by Matthew has the son going into Egypt. Of course, at a later point, the son will be called out. First, Matthew has to get him in. Neither is Matthew bothered by the detail of “his children,” Mattleans leans heavily on LXX but quotes from other versions or makes up his own. He finds the version which reads “my son,” more appropriate, so he uses it. The original context is Israel’s, hence, “children,” exodus from Egypt. And Israel as a collectivity could also be called “my son.” Matthew’s point is that Jesus repeats the experience of Israel, whom he represents in his individual person – as son in “exodus-ing” from Egypt. The Old Testament prophets saw the original Exodus as a prefiguring of the ultimate Messianic salvation in the future. Here, for the first time in Matthew, Jesus is clearly referred to as “God’s Son.”
Side bar: Out of Egypt means out of limitation. God calls all of his sons and daughters out of Egypt, that, is out of “limitation.”
In verses sixteen to eighteen, the story of the massacre of baby boys two years old and under by Herod’s order is modeled on Exodus 1:15-22 where Pharaoh decrees the murder of all the Hebrew male children. Estimates are that Bethlehem and its environs would have had no more than twenty infants of that age group at this time. The incident is recorded nowhere else. Herod was so paranoid and so cruel that he had three of his own sons killed and even left orders that after his death, to ensure everybody mourned, one member of each family was to be executed! The order was, of course, not carried out, Josephus, Ant. 17.181. In an age used to tyrants’ cruelty, this massacre would not seem extraordinary enough to get any headlines.
In verses nineteen to twenty-three, Joseph continues to let God’s dreams dominate and determine his actions. So, the family returns to Palestine, but not to Bethlehem. Matthew gives both a logical and a theological explanation for why Jesus is raised in Nazareth. Logically, it was too dangerous to settle in Bethlehem of Judea, in the south. On Herod’s death in 4BC his kingdom was divided among his three, remaining sons: Archelaus, Herod Antipas, and Philip. Archelaus got Judea, where Bethlehem was, Samaria and Idumea. He was so bad that the Romans removed him in 6BC, replacing him with Roman governors, the best known of which was Pontius Pilate. Herod Antipas got Galilee, along with Perea, up north. He was much more peaceable and predictable than Archelaus; so they went there. Nazareth was in Galilee, an agricultural village not far from the Via Maris, Way of the Sea, the main trade route to Egypt. If Nazareth was known for anything it was for not being known for anything or even known at all. It was not mentioned in the Old Testament. The only reference to it is in John 1:46, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?,” where its insignificance is ridiculed.
“He shall be called a Nazarene.”: Theologically, it would not do for Jesus to be known as Jesus of Bethlehem rather than Jesus of Nazareth. Bethlehem was the royal city and would have tipped too many people off as to Jesus’ messianic status too early in his preaching career. Even though both were small towns, Bethlehem had a history. This supposed quotation from the “prophets’
Side bar: not one specific, identifiable prophet, is no quote at all, neither a direct quote from anywhere in the Old Testament nor an adaptation of any known Old Testament text. The term “Nazarene” has three principal derivations: from the place-name Nazareth, from Hebrew nazir, one under vows to God, see Judges 13: 5, 7, and from Hebrew neser, “branch,” referring to the Messiah in Isaiah 11:1. Matthew would expect his original readers, mostly Jews, to keep all three connotations in mind. Exactly where Jesus was raised, example, the location of his house, was not revealed specifically in Scripture, but neither was it accidental or inconsequential that it was Nazareth.
Environment influences behavior. While there is much debate these days as to how great that influence is, we would not want to go so far as to say environment determines behavior. Although some do or seem to maintain that behavior is determined by both external and internal motivators beyond an individual’s control, Christians would not. So, it is powerful, but not determinative. Humans keep thinking that if we produce the ideal environment here on earth the consequence of that would be perfect people. The story of Adam and Eve reveals the error of that false hope. They lived in an ideal environment and it did not prevent them from sinning. They are responsible for their sin because of their free will. So are we.
Having said that, it is still true that environment matters. It mattered to God who were the parents of Jesus, how he was raised and even where he was raised. All those direct interventions by him- through dreams and angels- and all the Old Testament quotes by Matthew make it clear that God was very much determined to see to it that things happened the way he wanted them. It mattered to God that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Oh, he would have been God’s Son had he been born elsewhere. But it mattered to God for educational purposes. He would use that fact, unknown to the educated nay-sayers, to demonstrate that Jesus was David’s son, the awaited Messiah.
And it mattered to God that Jesus was raised in backwater Nazareth. Even though it was off the beaten path, probably a quiet place for reflection, it was near a main highway where people from foreign lands would pass through. Those folks would bring their ideas with them, ideas different from the insulated, provincial ones found in the big city, Jerusalem, in the south. There was a large Gentile population, mixed with the Jews in Galilee, a situation not found in the south. Jesus would have been exposed to Gentiles, finding them as good as or better than his fellow Jews, to foreign ideas, to a freer Judaism than that found in Jerusalem. He probably knew Greek, the language of the eastern part of the Roman Empire, something he would not have learned in the south. For a variety of reasons it was important to God that Jesus be raised where he was. No doubt Jesus would have become open-minded had he grown up elsewhere, but this was where he grew up and it helped shape, shape not determine, his mental and personal characteristics.
Most parents know that environment- geographical, physical, emotional, familial- has an important role to play in raising children. However, parents should also know that one can raise a child in the best possible atmosphere and be disappointed in the results. What is most important is to follow the example of Joseph in this chapter. He kept having his dreams for himself, his wife and child interrupted by God’s dreams. He listened to God. How disappointed he must have been when he found out Mary was pregnant. How it must have shattered his dreams. Yet, God revealed to him that he had bigger plans and if Joseph cooperated, which God was sure he would, they would be realized. Traveling to Bethlehem at such a dangerous time for Mary, only Luke tells us this detail, picking up stakes and fleeing to far off Egypt and then returning at a moment’s notice, Joseph did as told. He must have had his own plans and his own dreams for his child. But he acquiesced to and cooperated with God’s plans. He realized that his child belonged to God first, was his own person, not a carbon copy of him or anybody else, not an opportunity for Joseph to live another life through his child making him become all that Joseph did not. Yes, if a parent follows Joseph’s example such a parent will provide the environment, the arena of dreams, for a child to grow, but not force the growth nor be disappointed if the child fails to fulfill the parent’s dreams. To have the responsibility for something or someone not one’s own and to be accountable for its management, growth and development is the New Testament definition of stewardship. Parents are stewards, not owners, of their children and need to listen to God’s word on how to raise them.
As Joseph adopted God’s Son, so he also adopted God’s dreams and made them both his own.
Following God’s dreams means being detached from the status quo.
God’s dreams are found in God’s word, which gives us the final result but only the next step to take towards it.
God leaves it to us to fill in the blanks, the details, of how to get from where we are to where he wants us to be.
Protecting Children: Be it animal or human, the first responsibility of a parent of a newborn is protection, protection from death by starvation, from illness by disease, from harm by predators, from the elements by shelter. Joseph and Mary were no exception, even though their newborn was divine. When Joseph accepted God’s dream for humanity and adopted Jesus as his son he accepted the responsibility for protecting his life and his well-being. In this case that meant becoming a fugitive from injustice. It meant a long and grueling journey into a land where Jews used to be slaves. At the same time it meant that Jesus would repeat and go beyond, the experience of Moses and his people by coming out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, but never to return again to the state of slavery and sin. Thus, Joseph modeled his namesake of old, just as Jesus modeled Moses. As is always the case when God is involved, there is more to this move into Egypt than what meets the eye. There is more going on underneath the surface than there is topside. Joseph was doing more than protecting a son. He was protecting God’s plan, God’s dream, for all humanity. What he did during the first year of the baby’s life would redound to the benefit of all humanity until the end of time. So it is with all parents who accept their responsibility to raise a child. Every child really “belongs,” to all humanity and is not really the possession of its parents. Although protecting children is very close to the protecting instinct in animals, it is more than that. On the human level, survival of the individual transcends the individual’s interest. Since, until now, there is no such thing as human cloning, maybe there is and we have not been told?, every person is unique and has a contribution to make to humanity that only that person can make, or not make. The early nurturing years preserve, protect and strengthen physical life; they are also formative of the human person. They do not absolutely determine the quality of person a child will become, but they do have a profound influence on that outcome. On the human level, the animal instinct of protecting the young from harm transcends into a conscious decision to protect for, the good of the person, but also of all humanity. When a baby or child dies before reaching maturity, before becoming all it can be, before contributing to human life its unique gifts, the world is that much lesser for it. Likewise, when a baby or child does not receive the nurturing it needs to develop into a fully functioning human being, everyone in the world suffers from it. The world is that much less enhanced and enriched. The world may not know it, but it is true nonetheless. Parents who neglect their responsibility not only cheat their child, they deny the world of something and someone God sent into it for his own good purposes. Had Joseph not taken the action he did to preserve Jesus’ life, where would the world be today? It is really in the daily decisions to be faithful to God, no matter the personal cost or inconvenience, that the big picture is painted. Each decision is like a brushstroke on a huge canvas contributing to the whole in a relatively small but necessary way.
Need to Know: God reveals himself to us on a need-to-know basis. He does not give us the details. He lets us figure them out for ourselves. He gives us room to use our wits, imagination, skills, and resources to get from where we are to where he wants us to be. However, if we really need to know something we cannot figure out by using our God-given wits, he will see to it that we get that information and also receive the grace to carry out his will. Claiming ignorance as to how or when or why is only an excuse for not obeying. Joseph, to his credit, did not succumb to that temptation. Amen.