First Presbyterian Church
December 30th, 2007In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” Matthew 2:1-23
After the New Year we begin our quest to read the Bible cover to cover. I have been helped along the way by those who have provided a way to read and to help me find renewed appreciation for the texts of the Bible and of the Christian tradition and of other spiritual traditions.
One of my guides has been scholar Marcus Borg. He has told the story of his spiritual journey in his various books and articles. We just finished one of his books, The Heart of Christianity, in our Thursday study group.
Borg grew up in the Lutheran church in North Dakota. His early experience of faith was like mine and possibly yours. In this period, he read the Bible with what he calls pre-critical naiveté. He didn’t question the stories as to their historical validity. He accepted them as written. Noah really did put all the animals on the ark, two by two. Jesus did walk on water and was born of a virgin and so forth.
With pre-critical naiveté we see Matthew’s story of the magi following the star and Herod killing the innocents and the great escape of the Holy Family as something that happened.
Later in life, he went through a period of critical thinking about the Bible. He recognized that the Bible was a human work. He put the tools of historical and literary analysis to the texts. This analysis showed that the stories of the Bible were compiled over long periods of time. They borrowed their legends from other sources. You could call this a period of deconstruction. The stories of the Bible and Jesus were likely not historical but legendary. I also had this experience, perhaps you have as well.
With deconstruction, we recognize that Matthew’s story is not historical. The story of Herod killing all male babies under two in an attempt to get to Jesus is a retelling of the story in the first chapters of Exodus where Pharaoh kills all the male children in order to get to Moses. Pharaoh fails and well as Herod in getting the promised child. These stories as well as the magi and the gifts and the star are themes drawn from the Hebrew scriptures.
Deconstruction tells us it didn’t happen. The birth stories, to put it bluntly, are fictions. While that is true enough from an historical perspective, it can leave one rather, well, deconstructed.
Marcus Borg tells us of a third step. He calls this move post-critical naiveté. From this standpoint one recognizes the legendary quality of the stories, but then asks, “Why are they here? What is their truth? What do they mean?”
Rather than stop at deconstruction, by dismissing the story as a fiction and not worth our time, post-critical naiveté enters the story as story and invites the story to provide a critique of the self.
Post-critical naiveté asks what this story tells us about life, about the world, about whatever it is we call God and about ourselves. We enter the story to seek a word of truth for us.
We don’t ignore deconstruction. In fact we continue to use the best critical tools at our disposal to try to discover the context of these texts and why they were written. Yet we also move to the next step. We put ourselves in the position of the characters.
The infancy narrative in Matthew is the Gospel of Matthew in miniature. Jesus is presented as the new Moses. The same forces at work to thwart the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery by Pharaoh are at work in Herod. The good news from Matthew’s viewpoint is that God finds a way.
In their latest book, The First Christmas, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write that any first century hearer of this story would know the connection between Herod and Pharaoh. Borg and Crossan write that the story could be put into a headline that reads:
Evildoer Kills All Male Children Under Two: Chosen Child Escapes
This is the story that is repeated throughout literature. It is the story of the hero. It is an archetypal story. The hero has a divine blessing, a guardian angel. From Moses to Homer’s Ulysses to the legends of King Arthur to Star Wars we find this theme. The chosen one is protected, guided, and escapes at the last minute so that he or she can complete the larger mission to save the people.
The story did not happen. It always happens (at least in storytelling).
The story of the hero is told by the vantage point of time. The hero doesn’t know she or he is a hero. At the moment in these stories they are as confused as anyone. The storytellers know and the hearers know. The storytellers look back and say, “See, the hand of Divine Providence was in it all of the time.” In the case of Matthew’s Gospel, the author uses the tool of prophecy. Matthew in his infancy account uses the prophetic technique five times.
Matthew writes the gospel to inspire and empower those in his time to trust. This story will repeat again, and you will be the hero. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is on the mountain and he says to his disciples, “Go into the world, make disciples of all nations, and remember that I am with you until the end.” Jesus is assuring them that they are not on their own; Divine Providence is with them.
The hero’s story is one in which the Divine must be present. No hero completes the quest without the blessing of the Fates, or the Force, or God, or Goddess or something. In the Christian story, Christ.
The hero does not choose to be a hero. The hero is chosen. The hero is not chosen for special status but for service. This service will require of the hero great sacrifice. Jesus goes to the cross to demonstrate the way of the hero.
In addition to Divine blessing, the hero must also have some characteristics. The hero must be courageous, compassionate, trustworthy and pure of heart. Above all, the hero must have integrity.
The hero goes through tests. Jesus goes into the Wilderness for forty days and nights to be tested. The hero must always be ready to look at herself to see if her motives are pure. The hero must be honest. The hero must take an inventory of herself.
In Matthew’s Gospel the Sermon on the Mount, particularly the Beatitudes describe the characteristics of the hero:
Blessed are the pure in heart.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are you when you are accused falsely.
And so on…
Matthew’s Gospel could be called The Making of Heroes. In Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples of Jesus are called, chosen, to be heroes. For Christians, baptism is the sign or the symbol of being chosen by God for the task of heroism.
And you thought it was just about getting into heaven when you die. Baptism is the sign of the call to demonstrate the realm of God on Earth.
The tragic flaw of the villain in these stories is that the villain wants to be the hero, but the villain’s heart is not pure. The villain has a hardened heart. In many of these heroic tales, the villain starts out as chosen and has all the characteristics of the hero: strong, courageous, intelligent, but lacks the purity of heart. The villain wants to control events rather than be guided by Divine Providence.
When the hero becomes Herod, all kinds of bad things happen. Rachel weeps for her children, for they are no more. When the hero becomes Herod, cruelty reigns. The strange thing is that in Herod’s mind, he is doing what needs to be done. How many leaders have killed the innocent for a cause?
Our world is filled with the blood of innocents who are the collateral damage for those who want to make the world in their image.
When we enter this story of the birth of Jesus, this heroic story, we are asked by the story itself, if we are going to be the hero or Herod? That question calls us to look inward. Do we have purity of heart? Are we concerned more with controlling events or by trusting and being guided by that which is good? That is why taking that inventory of self is so crucial on a regular basis. We must look within to name and to ask God to remove all defects of character.
I have heard that we live in an age without heroes. That could be.
It also could be that each of us is being called to the heroic quest.