After the election I read an opinion piece that was memorable because it appeared in a self-consciously liberal newspaper. It was a call by a Roman Catholic activist for Catholics to double down on their anti-abortion efforts in the new year because he suspects the Trump administration, and Tom Price in particular (Trump’s nominee to head Health and Human Services), will be friendly to these efforts. In the commentary he refers to the slaughter of the innocents, and says it is time that we work to stop the slaughter in our day and age.
When I read the essay I didn’t think much about his biblical reference, but when I opened up the lectionary readings and read Mat 2:13-23, it struck me how utterly off point the commentator was when referring to this specific text. It is the terrible story of the slaughter of children two and under by Herod while Mary and Joseph, with Jesus in tow, flee to Egypt. There is nothing in the telling about stopping the slaughter nor any thought of attempting it, just an angelic warning that the Family should run! It is a text full of the inevitability of grinding human political power and the mourning and weeping of loss by those who suffer under a despot’s heavy hand. It is a story of helplessness, and even divine helplessness, and desperate plans in the face of disaster.
In one of Jesus’ more cryptic parables, he claimed it was harder for a rich person to enter heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (Mt 19:24). The parable came to mind as I compared and contrasted the Gospel Lesson with the activist op-ed. For the most part we are a wealthy people. I am certainly comfortable in my life and so I am unequivocally speaking to myself at this point. Wealthy people are typically not in the business of being overwhelmed by problems, we’re in the business of fixing them.
I suspect this penchant for fixing problems seeps into our perceptions of salvation every bit as much as it seeps into our reading of Matthew’s recounting of the Holy Innocents. When we think of the corruption that lies at the root of our eternal predicament, we see a fixable problem. Given enough time, resources, and effort, we can overcome anything.
But the Gospel is given to those who have to flee in the face of a despot, whose only possible response to slaughter is mourning because it is too dangerous and too impossible to even hope for revenge. Throughout Advent, when Isaiah spoke of crushing those who oppress us, he was not speaking of a political or diplomatic solution because such solutions require at least a tiny bit of power that can be leveraged. He was saying that in the Kingdom of God, the impossible will become true. The Gospel is the impossible addressed to the destitute and hopeless.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. If our first thought is, “We have to do something about this!” when we see genocide, disaster, and unspeakable evil, chances are we are not yet capable of understanding the Gospel. Only when our best option is to simply stop and mourn will we be in a position to hear God’s quiet voice.
Those who are capable of bringing healing and comfort to the world are those with tears streaming down their cheeks. The unexpected gift of the Gospel is that those who are truly in a position to offer real help are those who have no ability to help at all.
“Out of Egypt I have called my Son” (Mt 2:15). Out of despair and bondage has God called his church.