Commentary on Matthew 2:13-23
I have never had a dream that told me to flee in the middle of the night to save my family.
I have had what might be called “premonitions caused by fear” of things not going well if I made a particular decision, but no voice yelling, “Watch out!” And no awful results from those decisions, so far.
But as I look back on my life, I can think of a time or two when I could have used a bit more warning. When I got up one morning in 1987 in rural Colorado to go play a round of golf and rolled my car 5½ times down a mountain road, I could have used a warning that the fox was going to be in the road when I came around the corner. When I stepped off a curb on a snowy night in Arkansas and broke my ankle, I could have used a warning that there was a pothole under that snow. Warnings would have saved me some serious pain and suffering.
Most of us can think of times when a warning of some sort might have been very beneficial. Just some inkling of what is about to happen that might cause you to pause and reconsider to avoid some difficulty. Just a still, small voice clearly guiding you in one direction over another would be helpful.
But that is not how things typically work. We live by our faith, our choices, and our instincts. We live knowing that the decisions we make, while often guided by a deep sense of God’s guidance, are often still very much our own.
On this first Sunday of Christmas, we hear a story about a serious warning of coming peril. But this is not a still, small voice offering words of encouragement, guidance, or direction. This is a much more intense and emergent dream, from my reading. And in it the holy family is told, by an Angel’s visit to Joseph in the dream, to clear out, to get away as fast as they can. They are warned of the nature of the impending danger, are directed where to flee, and are told of the exact time they should stay away (verse 13). Later in the text, we read that Joseph is visited in a dream once again, to tell him to return to Israel but is warned to go to Nazareth to avoid Herod’s son (verses 19-23).
I would hope that such clear and vivid dreams would spur me to act in a way that steers me clear of danger, but more than likely I would chalk it up to a bad sushi or too much scary TV prior to bedtime. However, I sincerely believe that I would take the warning seriously if it involved the safety and survival of my family.
In this text, we read that the holy family received the messages and heeded the warning immediately (verse 14). The flight to Egypt was unexpected in so many ways. What a change in circumstances in such a short period of time we have experienced. The story of Jesus’ birth has just occurred in the reading of the lectionary and in the liturgical calendar. Now that the child has received symbolic and important gifts from some pretty unusual visitors, the family must run for their lives (verses 13-14). Fleeing Herod, who wants to destroy the young Messiah, is their only option (verse 13). We know that some time has probably transpired since the birth but the trip must have been fraught with fear and danger as they looked over their shoulder virtually every step of the way.
However, getting to Egypt did not stop the executions back at home as Herod tried to find and kill the holy child (verse 16). The story of the flight from Egypt and the killing of innocent boys under the age of two in Bethlehem and the surrounding area are often called “fulfillment” texts, in that they supposedly fulfill Hebrew Bible texts and prophesy (verses 15, 17). While the “fulfillment” of these texts in this passage is limited at best, the text makes clear that this event was not ordained by God — it was ordered by Herod. These acts are not “fulfillment” of God’s desires; these are examples of human fear, power seeking, anger, and evil (verse 16).
In the text, the reader is reminded of the slaughter of male Hebrew infants in Egypt during the days of Pharaoh (Exodus 1:22). We see once again an evil leader destroying innocents while saving one special child.1 These events and the pain inflicted in Herod’s attempt to destroy the infant Jesus are brought into sharp focus in the use of the Jeremiah text which elicits powerful images of mothers weeping for lost children (Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15). Comfort is often not to be found in these moments of extreme grief. And that is what Herod brings about in his anger (Matthew 2:16).
This part of the text can be problematic for many preaching and/or hearing this text, therefore the preacher on this first Sunday of Christmas should use caution in dealing with the passage. Making clear that humans are responsible for the evil they inflict on one another is paramount.2
The crux of this text for many preachers and their congregations is going to be the role God played in the midst of all of these events. “Where was God?” some might ask. “Why did God allow such evil then and since?” others will posit. And the nature of evil and the realities of theodicy, trying to make sense of evil in the presence of God, are hard to deal with in any one sermon.
Acknowledging the fact that God does not cause evil but is present in times of distress in the voice guiding us, in the sending of us to safety, in the healing of our pain, and in the presence in our lives is important.
1 Carol A. Newsome and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. The Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 254.
2 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 16.