History often has a way of repeating itself. And now, within recent days, weeks, and months, it has done so again, in terrifying and viciously life-destroying fashion.
As we enter the season of Advent and await the coming of the child whose appearance rocked the empire of his day (Matthew 2:1-15, 19-23), Matthew tells us a story of breathtaking brutality against the children of Bethlehem and of heartbreaking tragedy for their mothers (Matthew 2:16-18):
“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. 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.’”
The presenting details of Matthew’s story and the vicious 2023 war between Israel and Hamas diverge, to be sure. But the underlying message concerning empire and its instinctive modus operandi in the face of threat remains strikingly consistent across two millennia of time and across the narrow span which separates Bethlehem from Gaza. Threads of Matthew’s message are clearly visible within the present-day world of Israel/Palestine.
1. Empire finds itself, by its very existence, constantly under threat. Because it is, by definition, the “biggest kid on the block,” Empire instinctively and ironically fears those who live and suffer daily under its seemingly all-powerful occupation. Are these the people who will rise up and assert their freedom vis-à-vis Empire’s brutal grasp?
2. Empire has massive military means at its disposal and does not hesitate to use them against those who threaten its hegemony. No weapons and no military strategies appear beyond consideration. The prominent lethal technologies of the day are the clear weapons of choice. And collective punishment against entire populations of innocent civilians is the instinctive modus operandi for combatting evident threat.
3. When Empire retaliates against those whom it views as threatening, there is loss: personal loss, community loss, major loss, incalculable loss. And there is grief. Deep grief, wrenching grief, loud and inconsolable grief, the grief of those who have lost the ones they hold most precious: their infants, their children, their mothers and fathers, their brothers and sisters, their friends and loved ones.
4. But there is one thing more, as Matthew makes clear to us: the God factor. By the end of Matthew’s story, the God factor has come into play in ways that Herod could never have imagined. Herod does terrifying things, deeply evil things. But Herod never achieves his signal goal. And Herod himself is no longer around at the end of the story. Empire underestimates the God factor at its own risk.
But the God factor enters Matthew’s story in profoundly ironic fashion. In this story God works above all through the simple, obedient responses of those who hear the voice of God through the “angel of the Lord.” It is ordinary humans, whether foreign stargazers or powerless peasants, who, through their humble, peaceable, yes, even terrified obedience to God, ultimately scuttle the plans of Empire. Here God chooses to work through ordinary human beings to carry out God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10b).
So where does Matthew’s story leave us vis-à-vis our present, 21st-century world? To what simple, faithful, peaceable actions is God calling us, individually and collectively, vis-à-vis Empire and its violence in this present moment?
In what ways is God calling us, individually and collectively, to carry out God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven”? God give us ears to hear God’s voice. God give us eyes to envision that world where God’s justice reigns over all human beings and all nations alike. And God give us hands and feet to engage with energy in God’s peaceable agenda for all humankind. May it be so.