Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, recalling the episode in Matthew’s Gospel when King Herod, fearing the threat to his reign of the prophesied King of kings, ordered the slaughter of all Jewish boys two years old and younger in Bethlehem.
When the wise men had departed, 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.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and 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.”
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.”
This bloody episode presents us with some uncomfortable comparisons. The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents is one of the bloodiest episodes of the New Testament, though it would hardly stack up to the more sanguinary passages of the Old Testament.
To our contemporary ears the murder of the innocent children in Bethlehem is abhorrent, though we permit equally barbarous episodes to continue in places like Syria, Egypt, Myanmar, Newtown, Conn. and Sutherland Springs, Texas.
We marvel that such a thing could have happened, while some scholars theorize the incident wasn’t chronicled by first century historians because the murder of children simply wasn’t newsworthy in the Greco-Roman world. We may think ‘What a callous and horrible time that was,’ perhaps forgetting that the wholesale slaughter of children in places like Somalia barely registers a blip on our 24-hour news cycle.
As disturbing and illustrative as this episode is, for the real import of this passage we have to look past the killing and consider why Herod ordered the murder of these children. Again, I think the answer begs comparison to our contemporary world.
Herod’s order, for all its cruelty, was not arbitrary. It had specific intent: to kill in its literal infancy a movement that threatened not only his own reign, but the entire order of the ruling class and composition of society itself.
Of course, Herod missed his chance to kill the Messiah and his message at Bethlehem, and for the rest of his short life Jesus proved the not-so great Herod’s fears correct in ways the king could not have predicted.
Just as today, success in the first century Roman Empire was defined by power, wealth, political position, property and influence with those who had more of all the above. The definitions of human worth and success embraced by the Roman aristocracy and the Pharisees were not as unlike our own as we might like to think.
Into that world, and into ours, Jesus came with the divine mission of turning everything on its ear.
To the wealthy, who Jew and Roman alike believed had divine favor, Jesus said bluntly “You cannot serve God and money.” Today, in a society that still worships wealth above all else, Jesus still insists: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
Born into a society that believed its children were God’s elect, Jesus chose to make the hero of one of his most powerful parables a Samaritan – almost universally hated by his Jewish peers. In a society where national identity meant everything Jesus taught that salvation lay in welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, comforting the sick and imprisoned.
Those lessons remain as powerful, as relevant, and as ignored today in a society that breaks up families to deport parents, bans strangers from foreign lands, starves its children in spite of unparalleled wealth, strips the sick of health care and imprisons its minorities and women at record levels.
In a world in which access to God was controlled by a wealthy, powerful, politically influential class of religious elites, Jesus brought God down into the hearts of society’s outcasts. Jesus rejected the most powerful, most learned religious leaders of the day to build the most influential ministry team in history on the backs of fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, working class tradespeople and a zealot.
And those religious leaders who counted sins and coins? Jesus lost no opportunity to decry their hypocrisy, telling the most powerful members of Jewish society “So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
How would his words differ today in the face of powerful Christian leaders who excuse pedophilia, turn their backs on the poor, the immigrant and the sick and abandon the Gospel to curry favor with wealth and power?
Today, just as in first century Palestine, Jesus’ words undo everything this world tells us about the measure of success. Power is weakness. Weakness is power. Wealth is poverty. In poverty lies the riches of the kingdom. The stranger will be glorified. The powerful will be humbled.
It was this radical, dangerous undoing of the social order that Herod tried to quell with the sword in the streets of Bethlehem. And today, in a world every bit as avaricious and cruel as Herod, those who worship wealth and power still seek to slaughter the innocents.
This world still insists that God’s favor is found in the bank. Immigrants, the sick and the poor are ignored as religious elites jockey for position alongside the powerful. And the innocents – who live on in the hearts of those who embrace the message of selfless love and sacrifice in the Beatitudes – remain every bit as radical and dangerous today as they were to Herod.
When this world comes for your innocents, when greed, fear and hatred are clothed in the cross, remember the simple, beautiful, transformative and revolutionary words of the Beatitudes:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
In those words lies the undoing of everything considered rich, powerful, and successful in today’s society.
The Slaughter of the Innocents did not kill this message in Bethlehem. And, as long as those who follow The Way of Christ keep these words in their hearts, our society today, for all its avarice and cruelty, will do no better.
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.