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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
Why might “all Jerusalem” have been disturbed by the Magi’s declaration?
Judea was an agrarian society. Agrarian societies could be headed politically and economically by a fortified city where the rulers lived. This kind of agrarian society benefited and privileged the city rulers with a privileged, secure lifestyle with attendants yet at the expense of the peasant farm workers outside the city. The rulers typically owned the farmland outside the city, too.
That was the situation in ancient Judea. Judean society took the form of a Temple-state centered in Jerusalem and headed by a priestly aristocracy and their retainers such as the scribes. To the best of our knowledge today, this priestly aristocracy was comprised of four families who were appointed to their powerful positions by Herod and therefore Rome. The priestly aristocracy was the elite and powerful who were politically tied to Herod’s success.
When Matthew’s narrative says “all Jerusalem” was disturbed, I don’t believe he was saying all the Jewish population of Jerusalem. That interpretation blames Jews for Jesus’ later execution. No. “All Jerusalem” is more similar to what we here in the U.S. might say: that all D.C. was disturbed. We wouldn’t be talking about the taxi drivers but we’d be talking about those in political positions of power and privilege and their attendants who would have much to lose from a change in the status quo. Horsely again states, “‘All Jerusalem’ would have been the ruling city that politically dominated and economically exploited the rest of the people” (Ibid. p. 50). The elite in power because of Herod’s position would have been deeply disturbed by any threat of change to Herod’s situation and thus their own.
What does this have to do with us today?
Notice that, for their first audiences, the stories of Jesus were not Christian stories about getting to heaven. These were stories deeply rooted in the concrete liberation hopes and realities people were facing. Matthew borrows from the original Exodus narratives at certain places in his advent story because, just like the Exodus story, Matthew’s story is about our concrete real world, oppression in this life, here and now, and tangible hopes of liberation.
How do the ethics, values, and teachings that we find in the Jesus stories guide us to impact our real world in concrete ways as agents of action? How do they inspire us to shape our world into a safer, just, compassionate home for everyone? Are we, unlike these advent stories, just focused on an afterlife, post-mortem heaven, or escaping to bliss beyond? Or are we, like these stories, engaging the real harm being committed against vulnerable populations and communities in our society today? How much does our following Jesus align with these stories? How aligned is our Christianity with the this-life focus and liberation of Jesus?
These stories are political. They are rooted in the hunger of an oppressed people for social justice. They are about concrete liberation from injustice, both systemic and private, in the here and now, and that is to be our focus as Jesus followers, too.
This focus becomes even more pointed when we get to Luke’s advent narratives.
We’ll take a look at those next time.