Summary: A consideration of Matthew’s story about Herod’s slaughter of the children in Bethlehem following Jesus’ birth.
THE SLAUGHTER OF THE INNOCENTS
Christmas 1 (a) • December ’95, ’98, ’01
I hope you had a good Christmas. We stayed home again. We didn’t go anywhere. Didn’t visit any relatives (though we had some visit us). Didn’t go see a movie (something we’ve sometimes done in the past). Didn’t even leave the house.
We’d done this before. Back about six years ago we started. Stayed home all day that Christmas, 1995. By the end of the day I got a little case of “cabin fever” and decided that we’d go out to eat supper. But then one of the kids started running a fever, so I announced that I’d go out, get something, and bring it home.
It was the first time I’d ever tried that, and I learned something: there’s nothing open on Christmas, at least not in north Charlotte! I was amazed! I drove all over University City and down North Tryon. I found two places open: The Waffle House and an Italian restaurant down in front of Lowe’s near Harris Boulevard. And both of those places were kind of deserted! The whole city was like a ghost town at 6:00 p.m. on Christmas day!
I got some Italian food, and as I drove home I thought: “How refreshing! There’s at least something, one day that can bring to a halt the hurry–scurry mad-ness of this world!”
But then I thought: Is this real? This Christmas peace?
Well, here we are, the Sunday after Christmas, and once again the lectionary presents us with this strange story from Matthew.
A strange, strange story that comes so close on the heels of Christmas.
The text is commonly called “the slaughter of the innocents.” We don’t usually tell or hear this part of the Christmas story. For the first sixteen years of my ministry I sometimes alluded to it, but never actually preached on it, even though at least once every three years the lectionary presents it to us here on the first Sunday after Christmas.
I’m a little ashamed of that, but I take some comfort in the fact that I’m not alone. I’ve never seen this part of the story on a Christmas card, or heard it sung in a Christmas carol, or seen it acted out in a Christmas pageant. Oh, we do sing and tell about the wise men’s coming — we act that out. But we always cut the story short. We do not include this episode, even though what happens here is the direct result, the direct consequence of the wise men’s visit. But we leave this out!
Can you imagine what it’d be like if I insisted on including it? Imagine me telling Jim Short, Jim Angel, and George Eanes, those brave men who once again produced our children’s Christmas pageant, that we must include this episode?! So recruit some children to play soldiers who will come in at the end and kill the babies.
For goodness sake! It’s too harsh! Too gory! Dead babies and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as refugees running for their lives! Not part of our holiday picture!
But here they are. Right here in Matthew’s telling of the tale. And those who protest the violence are right: there’s no more gory, bloody, violent scene in the entire New Testament, unless it’s the crucifixion itself. “The slaughter of the innocent.” “The flight to Egypt.” What are we to make of this part of the tale? Why did Matthew include it in his story. Luke left it out, after all!
Of course, there are theological interpretations which are quite helpful. The presence of an angry ruler, a helpless infant, the slaughter of innocent children, and the land of Egypt — for those with biblically trained ears, all of these things call to mind the stories of the beginnings of the people of God — the stories of Jacob, and Joseph, of Moses, Pharaoh, and the Exodus.
It’s clear that at times Matthew wants to portray Jesus as a kind of “second Moses” who delivers and frees his people. For Matthew the true fulfillment of Israel’s Exodus occurs later in the gospel, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but this episode from the birth story is a kind of foreshadowing of that event. Matthew’s weaving of these themes in his story is evidence of his marvelous skill as a master storyteller. He connects the story of Jesus with the story of Exodus.
Matthew makes one other such biblical/theological connection with this busi-ness about Rachel weeping for her children. That’s a reference to the exile in Babylon. Ramah, a site just a few miles south of Bethlehem, was the traditional burial place of Rachel, the wife of Jacob, the father of the twelve sons who be-came the nation of Israel. Rachel was buried at Ramah sometime around 1600 BCE.