Christmas 1 Year A 29th December 2013
Right through his gospel Matthew is keen to parallel events in the Hebrew Scriptures with those in his gospel. His goal is to present his gospel as a fulfilment of the events of old. Today then we read twice of the dreaming of Jesus’ father, Joseph, who of course linking that dreamer, gone long before, Joseph, with his coat of many colours. With such paralleling in mind then our Gospel has the Hebrew Scriptures three times quoted. The first of these, ‘I called my son out of Egypt’ comes from Hosea 11:1, the second, that of Rachel’s weeping is from Jeremiah 31:15, while the third, the call to take the child back to Israel is an illusion to Exodus 4:19-29 where Moses is told to return to Egypt. Of particular importance in Matthew’s gospel is that of the last of the three, the paralleling of the events of Jesus with those of Moses long gone before. This paralleling as I have said before is known as midrash. It is used to show that the divine is at work in an event now happening by linking it with an event of the past where all believed God was at work.
Matthew wishes not to present Jesus as Moses but as one even greater than Moses. As Moses was a liberator from slavery and a founder of a people, and while on a mountain receives the Law, so now Jesus founds a new people liberated from slavery and on the mountain gives rather than just receives on a new law. The parallels for Matthew between Moses and Jesus are established right from their infancy. Thus the miraculous events of Jesus’ birth are linked to those miraculous events surrounding Moses’ birth. Moses is hidden in bulrushes in defiance of Pharaoh’s orders that all male Hebrew children be put to death. Jesus is miraculously saved in our account from a new tyrant, Herod.
In passing one may note that miraculous birth stories aren’t only found in the biblical tradition. From ancient Sumer (2300 BCE) we read of how the mighty Akkadian king, Sargon had a miraculous birth, while likewise those who were held to be the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus were miraculously saved at birth. In both these stories the saving, like that of Moses, takes place by their being placed in or near a river where they are found by one who raises them. The difference again in the biblical account is that God rather than working the divine miracles through the high and mighty works them rather through the poor and lowly who in the way they are saved frustrate the high and mighty!
To return to our Moses story, he later after killing an Egyptian overseer is forced to flee to Midian but then after the death of that particular Pharaoh is able to return to Egypt. The passage describing the call to Moses to return to Egypt is central to our reading, both in the dream to Joseph to leave and flee to Egypt and then in the second dream calling him to leave Egypt and return to Israel. On successive occasions, first to do with the flight to Egypt and then the return to Israel, we find the words in our gospel patterned on those in the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus as long ago to Moses the Lord spoke twice so now to Joseph the Lord speaks twice speaks, calling for flight to another land, first to Egypt and then later back to Israel. The parallel is particularly drawn in that both to the flight of Moses and then later Jesus to Egypt the same Greek word is used to describe the flight.
Of course there is a real sting in the tail of this gospel story of flight. For Israel, despite on numerous occasions many Jews finding refuge there, Egypt was imaged as the place of bondage. Moses had after all eventually been forced to flee Egypt due to the tyrannical actions of a Pharaoh, leading the great exodus in order that Israel may be freed. They needed to flee of course because of the tyrannical rule of the Pharaoh who had ordered all their children killed. Now the flight is from Israel, the Promised Land, given by God, from a king, not of Egypt but of Israel, Herod, who orders, like Pharaoh, tyrannical policies to do with the killing of children. In the past it was the Egyptian empire that stood opposed to the plan of God. Now it is that, supposedly of God, Israel, led by a king who supposedly rules in God’s stead, which stands in the way of God’s actions! We know nothing from history of Herod so acting, save here in Matthew’s gospel, but from what we do know of Herod, a man who killed even his favourite wife and two of his sons because of paranoia associated with his hanging on to power and the need to eliminate any challengers, we can’t put it past him.
On the tyrant Herod’s death, Joseph receives for the second time in a dream the word from God that it is now safe to return to Israel. On arriving there he finds that Archelaus, the son of Herod, has succeeded him to the throne in that part of the kingdom. Herod’s kingdom upon his death had been split three ways between his sons, Archelaus receiving Judea, Herod Antipas, Galilee, and Philip receiving the Transjordan north and east of Galilee. Archelaus’ rule was so tyrannical and inept, arousing such opposition, that he was removed just ten years later by the Romans, who then assumed direct rule of Judea under procurators, the best known to us being Pilate. Joseph on returning to Judea finds Archelaus in charge and is thus forced to flee to Galilee. This second flight then serves as Matthew’s method of having Jesus born in Bethlehem, the town from which everyone believed the Messiah of David’s line would come, yet having him grow up in Nazareth, for everyone knew he was a Nazarene born of that town. So confident is Matthew of his solution he writes, ‘he shall be called a Nazarene’ taking it from a place he claims is in the Jewish Scriptures but which actually is nowhere found. Luke of course has a different method of having Jesus born in Bethlehem. He has the family already living in Nazareth but forced temporarily south the Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth because of a census.
What does Matthew’s infancy story say to us? It places Jesus in the line of Moses. Jesus, linked with Moses, is understood to be a new liberator, a liberator like Moses from slavery. Jesus, however, it is understood will be an even greater liberator. In Moses act of liberation a nation, freed from physical political and social slavery is founded. In Jesus an even greater liberation will take place. Not one that by-passes the need for such liberation as wrought by Moses, so needed still in our world, but one that reaches past it to bring liberation at every level of human existence. That depth liberation belongs further, not just to a nation founded, but to a founding of a whole new people, people who will come from every land. If you note the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel he makes this very clear. ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (28:19).
As this new people we are to be those who stand for liberation following both Moses and Jesus. We are called to act like first Moses and then later Jesus to free those in slavery. Slavery is a curse more present than ever in our world today. Its widespread prevalence is seen in greater numbers than ever from the brick kilns of India and China, to those forced as children in Uganda and Darfur as child soldiers. Then there are millions whose whole nations are held subject to the great economic systems of our world, nations with levels of debt, usually accumulated at the hands of corrupt leaders, causing their people to suffer so terribly so that the great financiers of the world can be repaid. Let us be those who likewise welcome the many millions who, like Moses and Jesus, are forced to flee from tyrannical rule as refugees. But as I have said, beyond the physical slavery there are other sorts of slaveries. We may think of addictions to alcohol, to drugs, to wealth and possessions, the addiction to power. In Jesus the liberator comes and calls his followers to break all these. In him even the slavery of finitude itself is broken in the power of his resurrection to eternal life.
As followers of Jesus let us again call and act in our world so that liberation first wrought by Moses and even more wondrously by Jesus becomes a reality. As we do so the good news as given at Christmas, God incarnate in our world will become a deep reality.
- John Queripel