Church leaders and biblical interpreters often note that the Gospel of Luke reports Jesus' birth in terms of its effect on peasant people (e.g. shepherds), while the Gospel of Matthew presents it as a grand event,
eliciting responses from powerful representatives of the Roman and Jewish worlds (Matt 2:3-4), as well as drawing the attention of visitors from other lands (Matt 2:1-2). That may be true, but the gospel lesson for today makes clear that, even in Matthew's Gospel, the "glory days" of gold and frankincense and myrrh did not last for long.
The reading for today is organized around movements between four geographical settings that, taken together, relate a downward spiral for Jesus' apparent career and success:
Bethlehem is where Jesus is at the start of the lesson (cf. 2:1). It is the "city of David," a place of great importance in Israel's tradition and God's plan. Even Jesus' opponents knew (or learned) that this was precisely the spot where the Messiah should be born (2:3-6). But, from here, where would the "King of the Jews" go next, to Jerusalem? No, to Egypt.
Egypt (vv. 13-15) is a land with ambiguous connotations. It is, of course, the place of bondage from which God had to deliver the people in the exodus. But it is also sometimes a place of refuge (1 Kings 11:40; 2 Kings 25:6; Jer. 43:1-7). Matthew tells the story of the holy family's flight to Egypt with incredible irony. In the exodus story, babies were slaughtered in Egypt by the wicked pharaoh. But now, righteous Jews must flee to Egypt to escape a massacre of infants in their own land (Matt. 2:16-18). It is not, of course, a detour without precedent: another Joseph, who was also guided by God through dreams, once brought his family here (Gen. 37--50). And, as it turns out, Jesus' sojourn here is a brief one. Soon, the family is directed back to Israel (vv. 20, 21), where they belong. But, alas! Another problem arises, and they wind up settling in Galilee.
Galilee was commonly known as "Galilee of the Gentiles" (Matt. 4:15). Though once a part of the northern kingdom of Israel, the land had never really been recovered since its fall to the Assyrians, and it was now widely populated with "foreigners." The Jews in Judea considered Galilean Jews only a step above Samaritans. Settling here was definitely not a wise career move for anyone who wanted credentials as a Messiah (cf. John 7:41).
Nazareth is even worse. This little agricultural village, with a population of about 500, was so insignificant that, at one time, some historians and archaeologists denied that such a place had ever existed. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" may have been a proverb of the day. Certainly, these words of Nathanael recorded in John 4:46 would have represented a popular sentiment.
What are we to conclude? That Jesus, who started out so promising, has faded fast? That his "fifteen minutes of fame" are over? No, we cannot conclude this, because Matthew advises us that everything is transpiring according to God's plan. God directs the holy family at every juncture. And, even more important, every move they make has scriptural significance: Bethlehem in Mic. 5:2 (cf. Matt. 2:6); Egypt in Hos. 11:1 (cf. Matt. 2:15); Galilee in Isa. 9:1 (cf. Matt. 4:15); and Nazareth in . . . well, actually, no one's sure just where that reference to Nazareth is found (cf. Matt. 2:23), but Matthew thinks it must be in "the prophets" somewhere (prominent conjectures regarding what he had in mind involve references to the "shoot (nezer) of Jesse" in Isa. 11:1 or to the Nazarites in Judg. 13:5-7).
What this portion of Matthew's narrative presents is an unexpected turn in the career of Jesus the Messiah, a turn toward lowliness and humility rather than grandeur and greatness. After leading the reader to believe that Jesus would be one before whom kings of the earth would either kneel or tremble (Matt 2:3, 11), Matthew now reveals that Jesus is to be identified with helpless, and vulnerable people of this world. In time, this will include his followers, who like him will be pursued from town to town (Matt. 10:23).
The forced travels of Jesus and his family provide a powerful symbol for all of the refugees and oppressed people of the earth (the theme of forced travel is also present, in a different way, in Luke's Christmas story, cf. 2:1-7). A terrible reality of life is that a great many people in many parts of the world are simply at the mercy of political tyrants or unpredictable forces of nature that determine where, when, how, and whether they will live. Our Gospel lesson for today, building in a sense on Paul's simple affirmations that Jesus was "born of woman" (i.e., "like us," Gal. 4:5) tells us that Jesus himself was one of these dispossessed ones.
The chief priests would never have thought to look for the Messiah in Nazareth. But, then, that is the whole point. Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that they or anyone else was expecting. Nelson Trout, the first African-American bishop in the American Lutheran Church used to say that "in Jesus Christ, God stoops down very low" (cf. Phil 2:6-8).
Another prominent theme in this lesson is that of God's providential care, linked to the metaphor of parental love (Matt 2:15; cf. Isa 63:8-9, the first lesson for the day). Coming as this Sunday does at the end of a calendar year, the day could be devoted to remembrance of what God has accomplished in the congregation and church at large throughout the past year, with attention to the meticulous way in which God guides and provides for us-even when events do not appear to be transpiring as we would wish. The travels of Jesus in this text are being viewed (by Matthew) in retrospect: now we can see that all was for the best, but that might have been difficult for Joseph or Mary to have grasped at the time.