Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Slaughter of Innocents

The gospel writers love to make connections between Jesus and the Hebrew Bible. This time of year we're accustomed to hearing about the connections that are associated with Jesus' birth. For example, both Matthew and Luke go out of their way to tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Seven hundred years earlier, Micah had prophesied that Israel's ruler would come from Bethlehem (5:2), and it made sense to Matthew and Luke that Jesus should be born there. Mark and John, on the other hand, were not concerned with that detail and left it out of their gospel accounts, but Matthew and Luke cared enough to make the connection for us.

During the season of Lent, as we approach the story of Jesus' death, we look to the gospel writers to make other connections for us--usually with the suffering servant of Isaiah. For example, Jesus' silence before his accusers is linked to Isaiah 53:7, where God's anointed servant is described as "oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth." Each time they link a detail from Jesus' life with a passage from the Hebrew scriptures, they help make a case for him as the one foretold by the prophets. They are links that make me smile, that make me feel like I understand Jesus a little bit better. But the prophetic fulfillment that we celebrate today not only wipes that smile off of my face; it also leaves me wondering whether I can believe in a God who draws clear straight lines from Old Testament predictions to their terrible fulfillment in Jesus.

"When 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" (see Matthew 2:13-18). Some translations render that "male children," and I suppose it does make a difference, but we're still talking about a terrible atrocity. All the [male] babies two years and under in and around Bethlehem were taken from their mothers and fathers and executed because one of them might grow up to be a rival king. Let the significance of that indiscriminate killing of children sink in. Let the blood of that genocide flow in your mind. And then hear what Matthew says about it: "Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: '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.'"

This was the fulfillment of a prophecy? This baby-killing murderous rage was because several centuries earlier Jeremiah had described the suffering of God's people as "Rachel weeping for her children?" Are you kidding me? What sort of sick and twisted truth is this? If the slaughter of the innocents that was the result of Jesus' death is understood to be the fulfillment of a divine prophecy, does that mean that the blood of that genocide stains our hands as well? Do we really believe in a God who sent his Son so that the world might be saved even if that meant that innocent babies would be slaughtered as a result? Sure, you can't make a cake without breaking some eggs, but these are children. These are babies. They were loved and cared for. They had lives that stretched out in front of them. And they were taken, slaughtered, snuffed out, extinguished as a part of God's plan? Even if God didn't cause it to happen, when we make the connection between this slaughter and the prophecy, we are aligning these deaths with God's plan, and that leaves me confused and hurting and wounded.

Does it help if we know that there is no other historical account of Herod's massacre of the innocents except in Matthew's gospel account? Not only is it not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, but it is also missing from every historical account from that day. Does that matter? Does it make it better for us to know that Matthew may have made the whole thing up just to make the connection? Is that even worse? Does it worry us more to think that this horrific puzzle piece was manufactured by Matthew to help explain the story of Jesus? What does that say about Matthew? About Jesus? About God? About us?

Does it help if we know that there were probably around 1000 people living in the Bethlehem area at that time, which means we're likely talking about twenty dead babies? Does that help put it in perspective? Does it assuage our anger, guilt, or confusion to know that only two dozen or so toddlers and infants and babies were taken from their parents' hands and killed before their eyes? Can we measure and compare the magnitude of a tragedy in terms of body count? What if it was only ten children? Five children? Is that an acceptable number of innocent fatalities in order for the savior of the world to come?

Does it bother us that none of the other fathers in Bethlehem got a message in their dreams to flee to Egypt? Does it bother us that God could have simply hidden the star from the wise men? Or caused Herod to choke on a chicken bone before he had a chance to kill the innocent children?

This lesson--this story, this prophecy--leaves me with far more questions than answers, and I resent any attempt to make the connection between Jeremiah's prophecy and the deaths of innocents neat and tidy. I don't actually believe that's what Matthew is trying to do. It's easy for me to point the twenty-first-century finger of exegetical criticism at Matthew and tell him he got it wrong. I don't think Matthew is asking us to believe that innocent deaths are a part of God's plan. I believe he's asking us to remember that innocent deaths are a part of reality, and God's plan is to transform that reality through his Son Jesus.

Estimates of the death toll in the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011, are between 300,000 and 500,000 people. That's half of a million people. UNICEF estimates that by February 2012, 500 children had been killed and over 400 had been arrested and tortured in Syrian prisons. Two years later, the United Nations estimated that a total of 8,800 children had been killed. Although given by an opposition activist group (the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights), the current estimate of children killed in the conflict is almost 16,000 (see Wikipedia). That's almost twice as many students as are enrolled in Decatur City Schools (see DCS website). Imagine that: every child in Decatur, Alabama, murdered...twice! Can we even fathom a massacre of that scale? How do we make sense of it? How do we make sense of a God who looks on and lets that happen?

We don't. We don't make sense of it, and we don't attempt to justify it as a part of God's plan. We see and know that the murder of innocent lives is antithetical to God's plan, so we commit ourselves and our money and our voices and our actions and our prayers to ending the massacre of children. As followers of Jesus, we refuse to ignore the tragedies around us. We refuse to hide behind the insulation of the Atlantic Ocean or our gated neighborhoods. We must look deeply into the suffering of this world and ask ourselves, "Is this the way God wants the world to be?" And, if the answer is no, we must say to ourselves, "Then what will we do about it?" If we shrug our shoulders, then those children died for nothing. If we refuse to act, then the babies of Bethlehem were just another tragedy, and Jesus' birth has no power for them. We believe it does. We believe that we must act. Do not rest until the world is the kingdom God created it to be.

I donated to UNICEF's work in Syria. That's not enough, but it's a start, and I invite you to make a start, too. Find a way to support efforts to protect the lives of innocents in Syria or elsewhere in the world.

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