After Goodness Saves Jesus
The other night I walked into my mom’s apartment in the back of our house and the news was on. I never watch the news. We don’t even have cable. For good reason. What I saw was flashing lights from ambulances, in Berlin, Germany, due to a Christmas market attack.
Reading Matthew 2:16-18 is like walking into a news story you never wanted to see. In fact, it’s so horrific that usually I gloss over it as I read. Last year, for the first time, I lingered on what happened after goodness saves Jesus from Herod.
“Then when Herod saw he had been tricked by the magi, he was very angry, and gave orders to kill all the male children in Bethlehem and all the surrounding countryside who were two years old and younger, according to the exact time which he had learned from the magi. Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
lamentation, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she wouldn’t be comforted,
because they are no more.”
It’s probably one of the most painful, evil acts in history, still remembered yearly by the Catholic and Orthodox churches at the end of December. Herod acted in a wild rampage of destructive power. There was no reason to murder the younger babies, too, since killing two-year-old Jesus was Herod’s aim. He knew the exact time of Jesus’ birth (Matt. 2:7).
Herod also believed the prophecy was true about the coming of the Messiah (Matt. 2:4). He was a man of faith who had turned his back on it and embraced his own reign, instead. He sought to kill the awaited Jewish Messiah of God.
So, he sent his reluctant soldiers to take these crying children from their stunned, sobbing mom’s and dad’s arms, as their sisters and brothers watched.
Getting Close to the Story
I can’t feel this story without my temples throbbing. I can’t go face-to-face with the emotions of these parents, these mamas, these sisters and brothers, and yes, the men ordered to commit the deed. This was not a one-time event for them. They lived with it for the rest of their lives, and it remained a backdrop to Jesus’ growing up years, something he likely heard about again and again.
Mother God was looking out for Jesus, but what about these families?
And underneath is the question we live with still: why people suffer from others’ evil actions. Our impulse is to blame Mother God (and in such circumstances the metaphor of Mother works only too well).
Or we want to explain the suffering away, soothe it away with reasonable words like Job’s friends. Yet, there are no words to bring comfort, like the prophecy foretold.
Even so, I found three things that I imagine Jesus learned from hearing the story of his father’s dreams, and from the stories of the massacre of the Bethlehem children. We can learn these things, too.
1. To Listen
We don’t know if Mother God or the angel of the Lady warned all the parents in some way. I do know how hard it is to give the Mother any authority to speak.
Joseph and Mary had mastered that one. Three times in Matthew 2, Mother God sends a dream or an angel in a dream to give a warning to Joseph (2:13, 2:19, 2:22). Every time, the he listens, and avoids tragedy. Jesus likely learned from the stories his parents told, to take time away to listen to God for encouragement, direction and warnings (e.g. Mark 1:35).
Likewise, I believe that we as Jesus’ followers can learn to listen to Mother God’s voice through dreams, visions, prophecies, and our own inner knowings. We can learn to defeat evil by strategic listening, like the wise men and Joseph did.
2. To Value Children
Did these empty families of Bethlehem teach Jesus to value each child, to welcome each baby like she was the last on earth (Mark 10:13-16)? Maybe their stories inspired Him to reflect more deeply on the core of repentance which is about “turning the hearts of the parents to their children.” (Malachi 4:6; Luke 1:17).
And I wonder if He thought of Herod when He said, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt. 18:6).
We can see Jesus’ heart toward children better through the lens of what he personally suffered through hearing the stories from the families of the murdered babies. And we are called to follow Jesus in his welcoming heart and deep respect for children.
3. To Confront And Forgive Evildoers
And maybe Jesus thought of Himself, and the evil He would someday face. It too would fulfill a prophecy. He would have to prepare to forgive those who hated him, as the parents and siblings of Bethlehem may have struggled to forgive Herod and his men, all their lives. Jesus never backed down on the need to forgive and love our enemies (e.g. Matt. 5:43-48).
But He also told the truth. He took every opportunity to expose evil, whether from well-meaning Peter or from duplicitous Judas, but especially from the scholars and religious leaders.
The final word was “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) But before that, he tried hard to show them what they were doing. Some listened, most didn’t.
We, too, need to learn to speak truth to power that perpetuates evil, and when our enemies hurt us, to (eventually) forgive them. We will need this lesson more than ever, perhaps, in the next four years, if Trump remains president.
There is no way around the pain of evil but through it, with “lamentation, weeping, and great mourning” when we or someone else has lost someone or something to its destruction. But we must also remember the truth of Leanne Payne’s practical words in her book, Listening Prayer, that evil “has an illusory nature. It attempts to win through bluff–through puffing itself up to horrendous size.” As with physical pain, evil magnifies itself through fear. One of the first ways to defeat evil is to repeatedly shift our focus away from it and from fear, to Jesus.
Jesus’ birth is the beginning of the story that permanently defeats evil. We have a long way to go, but every year, we learn again that no news story, no matter how painful, can stop the hope of resurrection and the new reign of God.
“The baby will play next to the den of the cobra, and the toddler will dance over the viper’s nest. There will be no harm, no destruction anywhere in my holy mountain; for as water fills the sea, so the land will be filled with knowledge of YHWH.” Isaiah 11:8,9 The Inclusive Bible
Come, Lord Jesus.