Last week, Nadia Bolz-Weber posted a stirring reflection on the “slaughter of the innocents” (Matt. 2) passage on the anniversary the Sandy Hook massacre. She critiqued our cultural sentimentalizing of the birth narratives. We have whitewashed the rawness and grit of the story of the birth of Jesus and, in so doing, have undercut the the verve and force of its message. We’ve revised the Magi (who were not really “wise men” and certainly not “kings,” but “magicians,”–in her words, “opportunistic, pagan, soothsaying, tarot card reading astrologers”) and, most detrimentally, we’ve excised King Herod from the story altogether. Much like Thomas Jefferson’s Bible in miniature, we’ve simply cut out the parts that don’t support our need for good cheer. So, in short, we’ve got a manger scene with no danger scene.
But Matthew text puts the danger in. Jesus comes into a world of fear, murder, tragedy. A world of suspect figures and suspicious, pathological rulers. A world of sin. In fact, I would want to add, it’s seems impossible to avoid a seemingly even messier difficulty: God himself seemingly contributes to that world of violence, in that the miraculous birth of Jesus, his coming to be the savior of the world, is itself an element in the causal chain that leads to the murderous actions of Herod. But the point is not to speculate here about divine action, providence, and foreknowledge (we can leave that to the theodicists). So back to the main point, Bolz-Weber summarizes our “nicened-up” reading of the infancy narrative:
This couldn’t be more ironic, turning the Magi into kings, like we are doing them some great favor, because honestly everything in Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus is decidedly anti-king. I mean, there is a king in that text, but it’s Herod: a scheming, frightened, insecure, troglodyte who puts a hit out on a toddler. This is what the text has to say about kings.
I get her point, here. Why don’t we talk openly about Herod and the “massacre of the innocents”? Shouldn’t our Christmas messages reflect the grittiness and messiness (and sin) that the biblical account clearly includes? And shouldn’t our Christmas reflections also reflect the tragedies and evils of our actual, lived situation? Just yesterday and today we are hearing about yet another “massacre of the innocents,” as people with bombs and guns are scaling the wall of a school–for God’s sake–a school and summarily murdering (some burnt alive) at least 141 people–mostly children. According to a CNN report, one Taliban leader was heard as saying, “‘A lot of the children are under the benches,’ ” a Pakistani Taliban member said, according to Ahmed. ” ‘Kill them.'”
That sounds like King Herod.
There is one thing that was implicit in Nadia’s post, I think, that could be more explicit. Jesus is the king, not Herod. Matthew wanted to make this clear. Jesus was the Messiah, but a particular kind of Messiah–the royal, kingly kind. So, the genealogy goes to great pains to show us that Jesus comes through the line of David (even if, born of the virgin Mary), he was grafted in to the line by a kind of “adoption” by Joseph.
The main point, though, is that Jesus is the real king who will be the savior of the world. Emmanuel, God with us. And as the real king, he shows what it means to “rule” in the kingdom of God. It means to be a servant, to be radical love, to be a sacrifice. And so, he sacrifices himself on the cross “for our sins.”
The sacrifice of King Jesus was meant to end all sacrificing. It was meant to bring peace and justice into the world. It was meant to end violence.
The Lamb has already been slain, so why do we keep sacrificing other lambs? The Son of God has been crucified, so why do we keep crucifying each other? Why do we keep slaughtering innocents? Why do we keep demonizing, torturing, destroying–sometimes in the “name” of Allah or sometimes in the “name” of King Jesus? How many more ‘Slaughters of the Innocent’ do we need?