Lectionary Commentaries for December 28, 2014
The Holy Innocents

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 2:13-18

Melinda Quivik

Some churches today might opt for the Luke 2:22-40 story about Simeon and Anna’s joy over the dedication of Jesus.

Such a choice offers enormous treasures; it is good to remember those patient prophets, so glad to see the holy child at last.

But consider the rich paradox of celebrating the birth of Jesus, our redeemer, in the context of Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents, as this day is often named. Setting Joseph’s dreams that saved the baby Jesus in the presence of “Rachel weeping for her children” locates the announcement of God-with-us in a believable universe because it is our own. Ours is a world pervaded by sorrows.

When Christmas comes in any year, refugees will still be fleeing some horror in their homelands. Powerful people will still be threatening the vulnerable. Death will continue to stalk the unsuspecting.

And into the madness of want and evil, God comes to give life, to show the way. For that reason, focus on the Holy Innocents on the First Sunday after Christmas is a strong way to proclaim the gospel. The image of salvation in the midst of cruelty is accurate. It is crucial rather than something to avoid. Do not be afraid of it. A shallow religiosity will not want to hear about the murder of children, but such horrors are not endured by failing to hear about them. What overpowers the bloody spectacles human beings create is the overwhelming truth that God gives not only a means for responding to evil but also a reason: God’s creation is holy, intended for good.

In addition, Matthew’s Gospel lets us focus on Joseph. He is given four crucial dreams in the first two chapters, and then we don’t hear about him any more. His role is not only to protect Mary and Jesus but to serve as one whose actions respond to God’s desire for Joseph’s little family’s safety. God speaks and Joseph listens.

We cannot avoid noticing that the parents of the children targeted by Herod do not receive an angel’s message. This, again, is a reality in our world, and it is a circumstance worthy of our prayer and mourning. We do not understand it. We must say that. Not everyone is saved from others’ evil deeds.

From the pulpit this might be a moment to speak directly to those who look at the evil in this world and conclude that God does not exist. These people are likely in worship on any given Sunday. They are each of us, as well as the consistently skeptical. The preacher might point to the evil that we see all around us (and within us) and name it for those for whom it is a stumbling block. Those whose image of God is Superman (a power always intervening) have little patience with the God who does not make life perfect for everyone. By their admirable zeal that the world be made right, they are, however, kept from seeing the goodness and beauty of God-made-human. This Jesus, born in the midst of Herod’s brutality, knows our suffering, comes to the frightened and the sick and the hungry, feeds and heals, and teaches the presence of God’s power wherever there are tears.

Christians do not worship a god who simply fixes problems. We worship the God who comforts those who suffer and who visits us with dreams and visions and insights as with Joseph.

Joseph’s first dream (Matthew 1) tells him not to abandon Mary. In the second dream (Matthew 2:13-14) an angel tells Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt or Herod will kill the baby. Third, an angel tells Joseph, the refugee in a strange land, that because Herod is dead, the family can safely return to Israel (Matthew 2:19-20). On the way, however, Joseph learns that Herod’s son — someone as brutal as his father — is the new ruler. He hesitates until a fourth dream assures him it is safe to bring his family to a new home in Nazareth of Galilee (Matthew 2:22).

On this Sunday we hear of only one of Joseph’s dreams. Yet, it embodies all the dreams Joseph received, all carrying the same message: Do not fear anything — not Mary’s pregnancy, not even the king. God’s steadfast love gives us visions that are often as unbelievable as something that comes in a dream.

Scientists tell us that dreams are the nervous system’s way of sorting out the experiences we have during the day. We need deep sleep in order to let various parts of the brain “talk” to each other. During sleep, our brains are at work revising our histories, storing the images we encountered in wakefulness, setting to rights the clash of experiences and feelings. Without good sleep, human beings can go mad. In sleep, when we are utterly vulnerable, limp, receptive, our lives get re-configured, put together in new and startling ways.

Dreams come when we no longer cling to social convention or hide behind niceness, when we are unconscious, when we are, in fact, dead to ourselves.

Perhaps that is why dreams are everywhere in scripture with angels (messengers) who bear the Word of God to those who need to hear. In the prophet Isaiah’s words, God “lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” God’s word of rescue sets us on a journey toward what is whole and healed. At the fork in the road, we receive an unexpected directive (go to Egypt and then to a new home in Galilee).

We don’t know Joseph completely, but we know him well enough, because in just the way God’s messenger spoke to him, God speaks to us — in inklings, love, inspiration, insight, empathy, and even disgust.

Joseph understood where he ought to stand: alongside those who are in trouble. He guarded the ones in need of being lifted up.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:15-17

Carolyn J. Sharp

The weeping Rachel of Jeremiah 31 is among the most powerfully drawn figures in Scripture.

Within the luminous Book of Consolation (Jeremiah 30-31), the reader is astonished to find the matriarch utterly inconsolable because her children are no more. A unique figuration in the Latter Prophets, Rachel here refracts the trauma of a people broken by the tragic losses of colonization and exile. The weeping matriarch shows us that hope cannot be claimed easily after the experience of violence — not even by a covenant community called to be blessing for the whole world (Genesis 12:1-3). In this oracle, Jeremiah makes terrible loss, agonized waiting, and tenuous hope visible in a single holy utterance.

Who was Rachel, in the imagination of ancient Israel? Beloved of Jacob, Rachel showed herself to be resilient and creative. After Jacob’s household left the exploitative Laban, Rachel was bold in her ruse to hide purloined household idols from her outraged father (Genesis 31), proving her mettle as companion to her trickster husband. Struggling for years with barrenness, embittered by sororal competition for social status, Rachel did not give up, finally claiming her place in an androcentric cultural system through her birthing of Joseph and Benjamin. Rachel died in childbirth (Genesis 35:16-20), so in Israel’s historical imagination she could never have grieved the loss of her actual offspring. Thus the image in Jeremiah 31 is transhistorical and iconic: Rachel has become the paradigmatic mother who mourns ceaselessly over the fallen of Israel.

Jeremiah 31:15-17 opens with a series of enigmatic poetic clauses. “A voice is heard in Ramah”: whose voice? We cannot yet know; the poetry draws us in. Why Ramah? While the Hebrew term could signify an elevated place (“A voice is heard on a height”), it is more likely a place-name signifying an old Benjaminite cult site north of Jerusalem. It may evoke the Ramah where the great warrior-judge Samuel had been buried (1 Samuel 25:1, 28:3), and it was near the traditional site of Rachel’s tomb, also in Benjaminite territory (1 Samuel 10:2, although see Genesis 35:19; the location of her tomb has been contested since ancient times). The motif of the weeping Rachel may reflect an ancient folklore tradition that the ghost of Rachel haunted her burial place, although that cannot now be proved.

Jeremiah’s use of Ramah draws on a venerable cultural memory about Rachel, but it also relates to the prophet’s political circumstances. In Jeremiah 40:1, Ramah is identified as a way station during the forced deportation of Judean captives to Babylon. The mysterious opening of Jeremiah 31:15 creates a productive collision between Judah’s impressive past — the era of the patriarchs and matriarchs; the time of Israel’s most powerful judge, Samuel — and the loss, fear, and shame experienced by the traumatized deportees. Evoking authoritative tradition at such a challenging time would surely have catalyzed resistance and hope for the implied audience reflecting — then or later — on the exile.

The next clause, nehî bechî tamrûrîm, begins with two words whose brevity, medial guttural consonants, and assonance may evoke the gasps of sobbing. These words are followed by a syntactically more elaborate modifier (“bitter”) that draws out long vowels (u and i) in a wail. The sound of weeping precedes the identification of the one who is lamenting, which finally comes: it is Rachel, weeping for her children. The intensification enacted by the Hebrew parallelism with the next clause draws us deeper into her grief: refusing to be consoled for her children. Why? The poetry signals the cause in a shocking way: utter absence, expressed as the particle of negation with pronoun (‘ênennû), a formulation so anomalous in its terseness that some scholars emend it. The meaning is clear: They are not.

But there is hope. A reversal is effected through use of the Hebrew particle that predicates existence (yesh) — semantic converse of the particle of negation — as the Lord speaks to Rachel’s grief, bidding her to refrain from mourning. First, there is (yesh) a reward or wages for her work. What would be Rachel’s work? Over the centuries, various interpretations have been proposed, among them her original “work” of mothering children and her sustained liturgical “work” of lamentation in the allegory. Rachel’s work may have been to keep watch in her terrible grief, insisting on fierce dissent from any and all platitudes designed to erase her loss, until the Lord finally yielded and brought home the lost. Death and diaspora may have seemed to obliterate Judah’s children, but they will return. The second iteration of promise with yesh is bolder: there is hope for her future, for children will return to their inherited territory. The desolating ‘ên of negation has been spoken and can never be unheard — not in this oracle, not in the history of Israel’s subjugation by Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. But it can become part of a new discourse of divine redemption. This word of hope may be fragile, buried as it is at the center of the dark and disputatious book of Jeremiah. But it is nevertheless a promise of God.

The image of the weeping Rachel is deployed in Matthew 2 as a prophecy fulfilled by Herod’s slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem. In the shadow of the Cross, we understand the Incarnation as a sign of hope clothed in vulnerability, conflict, and suffering. The Gospel shout is rooted in joy, to be sure! But to be meaningful, it must reflect an understanding of the loss, fear, and pain at the core of human existence. Where believers grieve, Rachel stands ready to lament with them. Without such prophetic solidarity, we might be tempted to use theology to “solve” the suffering of the world for which Christ died. No: only in naming what has riven us and our communities can we proclaim with integrity the restoration that God offers in Christ. The preached word, then, becomes not a theological platitude but a word of power spoken into that liminal moment in which agony is true and hope is true.


Commentary on Psalm 124

James Howell

The Psalms of December’s lectionary: three National Laments — and now, the Sunday after Christmas? A National Thanksgiving! How fitting.

Corporate prayers of confession, pleading for mercy for the people, issue in the dawning of salvation, and thus a National Thanksgiving. We might be able to picture a national prayer for help, much as we experienced in the day or two after 9/11 in 2001. But a National Thanksgiving? The only Thanksgiving we seem to know is … Thanksgiving, which — as Reinhold Niebuhr wisely suggested — is nothing but a day of national self-congratulation.

Psalm 124, in ancient Israel, was one of the “songs of ascents,” one of the Psalms sung on the steps leading up to the temple at the great festivals. But “ascent” isn’t the mood of the divine during these days. There should be “songs of descent,” for Advent/Christmas is about a God come down, a God flatly incapable of hovering aloof in some Olympian heaven, a God who cannot help but descend, coming down to be with us, to be among us, to be … us, Emmanuel, God with us. God as … us. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

The Psalm asks, “If the Lord had not been on our side … ” Does God really take sides? Some of the thinnest, most atrocious theology we overhear in our culture is about God being on the side of — well, of the white people, or the pious people, or the people of a certain religious inclination, or those who are straight, or think the Bible is literally true.

God can be on your side, and on the side also of your most implacable enemy. God not only can be; God is on your, and his side. How strange! And yet, God made both of us, God won’t settle for less than all of us, God is committed to the holiness and wholeness of me, and him, and her and them and those other guys.

Perhaps it makes good theological sense that a Psalm of Ascents happens on the Sunday we celebrate the God who descended. This is, paradoxically, God’s true ascent … coming down, subverting up from down. As Socrates argued in his conversation with Gorgias, “The life of us mortals must be turned upside down, and we are everywhere doing the opposite of what we ought.” Indeed. In this realm of God’s descent/ascent, up is down and down is up, humility is glory, royalty is subservience, nobility is peasantry, shepherds hear the angels sing, and the Scripture scholars miss the coming of Messiah, but petty astrologers find their way directly to the manger.

Psalm 124 imagines a bird escaping, wings flapping, perhaps with a screech. A bird should not be entrapped, and even a child knows it. Birds have wings, and were meant to fly free, to glorify God by having plumage and by taking to the air!

We need help. Anne Lamott quite rightly wrote about the three (and only three) moods of prayer: “Help, Thanks, Wow.” The first mood of prayer is the desperate, painfully obvious plea for help. Jesus’ own name is (in Hebrew) yeshua, “Lord help!” We cry out for the help we know we need and cannot find or secure for ourselves. The Lord is our help.

Psalm 124 winds down with an echo of Psalm 121, another “Psalm of Ascent,” and one we read often at funerals: “I lift up my eyes … from whom does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Indeed. The help we need is right on the edge of life and death, not a little bit of help to make life fifteen percent better, but the help that is the difference between making it and not making it, the difference between life and death, the difference between faith and hope, and despair and isolation.

The God who is of considerable help is the one who made heaven and earth. Seriously: if God made all of this, the ground I walk on, the gravity that holds me in place, the breath I just took, the mountains, oceans, amoeba and eagles, this great God most clearly is able to help. This is the God who alone can help, and will, as is evidenced by what God has done over time, consistently, and most especially in the wonder of Christmas morning, taking on flesh, becoming one of us, what we all have been, mortal, human, vulnerable, lovely.

To contemplate what would have happened without this Lord is salutary. Were the Lord not on our side, the flood would have swept us away. Without the Lord we would have been “swallowed up alive.” We might feel swallowed up alive, but if we’re reading this, or preaching upon it, we haven’t been. God is good. We are still here, by the grace of God — and so we can take good hope in the God of Advent and Christmas, the God who ascended by coming down, and delivering real help to us, and to all God’s children in need.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 4:12-19

Judith Jones

In the United States, the American Dream is often proclaimed as if it were gospel: anyone who works hard and makes good choices can be happy and successful.

The author of 1 Peter understands the gospel and its consequences quite differently. Don’t be surprised, he says, at the fiery trial that you are experiencing. Don’t think it strange that you are suffering. Make good choices, by all means! But don’t expect that doing good will make you healthy, wealthy, and popular. Instead, rejoice as you share in the suffering of Jesus.

If we look at the biblical story, we soon see that doing God’s will is no guarantee that we will escape suffering. The Holy Innocents illustrate powerful peoples’ typical response to God’s work in the world. Herod reacted to the news the Messiah was born not by rejoicing and sending gifts for the baby shower, but by doing all he could to eliminate a perceived rival. Like 1 Peter’s audience, the slaughtered babies of Bethlehem and the parents who loved them suffered not because they had done anything wrong, but because someone rejected Jesus and felt threatened by God’s Good News.

Today’s passage from 1 Peter is not about the problem of suffering in general. It is not a reflection on why good people struggle with physical or mental illness or die in car accidents or have their lives overturned by natural disasters. It is a pastoral word of hope and reassurance for people who are facing abuse, social rejection, and public humiliation because they follow Jesus.

God’s work in and through Jesus is at the center of 1 Peter’s message. Jesus is the one through whose blood we have been ransomed (1:18–19) and through whose resurrection God gave us new birth (1:3). He is the living stone rejected by the builders but chosen by God (2:4), the cornerstone on which God’s house is built (2:5–8). And he is the suffering Christ in whose footsteps we are called to follow (2:21). If even Christ suffered, it should come as no surprise that his followers suffer too.

According to 1 Peter, the “fiery trial” that Christians in Asia Minor were experiencing was a test. Surface appearances can be deceptive. As Shakespeare famously put it, “All that glisters is not gold.” Like a fire that melts down metal and separates pure gold from contaminants and additives, suffering strips away externals. What is the effect? It reveals who we really are.

Although 1 Peter talks about suffering “in accordance with God’s will” (1 Peter 4:19), it does not say that God directly causes suffering. If we suffer while we are doing what is right and good, we are suffering in agreement with God’s will. The opposite would be sinning — choosing to live in a way that is not in accordance with God’s will — and suffering society’s usual consequences for criminal behavior. By contrast, if the world rejects us and reviles us for doing good, it is simply treating us as it treated Jesus.

1 Peter emphasizes that Christians must ensure that their actions actually are in accordance with God’s will. Though at least some of the readers have a highly questionable past (4:1–5), no one who follows Jesus should become a murderer, thief, or evildoer (4:15). Surely that much is obvious. The list of off-limits behavior ends with a surprise, though: NRSV translates the last word, allotriepiskopos, as “mischief maker,” but it really means something more like “busybody.” Christians are to avoid being bishops of everyone else; they are not called to oversee other peoples’ behavior. Facing social rejection because they are interfering nuisances is quite different from suffering for Jesus’ sake.

On the other hand, if people are ridiculed as “Christians,” if they are mocked as “Christ-lackeys” because they follow Jesus, they should not be ashamed. Being associated with Christ is not an insult, but a badge of honor. Here 1 Peter alludes to Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:11–12). Although the world may revile and shame Christians for following Jesus, God honors and blesses them. Whose opinion will count in the end?

1 Peter calls its readers to rejoice, not because suffering and rejection are good or desirable in themselves, but because when we are rejected for obeying God, we are partners in Christ’s experience. We enter the fellowship of his suffering. We know that God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to a place of honor, and we rejoice in anticipation, knowing that ultimately Christ’s glory will be revealed to the whole world.

When the world mocks us for following where Jesus leads, we can be filled with joy: the Spirit of glory, the very Spirit of God rests on us (cf. Isaiah 11:2). Like Jesus, we have been anointed with the Spirit. We are God’s house, the earthly dwelling-place of God.

We are called to be confident in God, but not complacent. As Christians we are not exempt from God’s judgment. On the contrary, 1 Peter says, judgment begins with God’s house(hold). God’s dwelling must be clean and holy. Painful though it may be, the refining fire purifies God’s people (cf. Mal 3:1–3). 1 Peter asks but does not answer the question: If even those who obey God find the process difficult, what will become of those who reject the gospel?

How should we live when we find ourselves passing through the refiner’s fire? 1 Peter calls us to trust in our creator, the judge who is trustworthy and just. Trusting God does not mean that we wait passively for the world to change. Like the one in whose footsteps we follow, we are called to action. We are called to do good in Christ’s name, to the honor and glory of God.