Matthew 2:13-23 Before Christmas I accompanied about 8 girl scouts, their leaders, and several parents to the corner of Edmondson and Poplar Grove so they could spread a little Christmas cheer to passers by. Before we went, we talked a bit about what kinds of life situations they might encounter in that place. Asked what might result when a person is dealing with multiple stressors, like unemployment, health problems and grief, the girl scouts put their finger on it: the person could turn mean. They recognized that even a “nice person” when faced with a series of problems or setbacks, could turn mean, and even violent. Sounds like the beginning of a psychology textbook. Sounds like the description of human behavior observed through the centuries. Indeed, we are no strangers to the concept that poverty and addictions can lead to violence. 15 children killed in Baltimore in one year, the highest number in three year’s time. Some accidents, some intentional. Some cases resolved, some remain unsolved. In the words of a grandfather of a slain teenager: “I don’t know how people can sit back and relax when little kids are dying.”
Herod the Great, a powerful ruler who called himself the king of Judea, was appointed by the Roman Senate and ruled for 33 years until his death in 4 bce. Herod was a builder, and left Jerusalem much stronger economically. But he was afraid. He worried about someone taking over his power. So much so, that he had his favorite wife and her two sons murdered because he thought they were involved in an attempt to take his throne. So much so, that he ordered all boys under two years of age to be killed in order to remove any possibility of a “new king” growing up in Judea to take his spot.
Reacting from fear, humans do things they might not ordinarily do. People who are normally nice may turn mean or violent. In his position of power, Herod figures he can do whatever he wants. Never mind that killing babies was against the morals and ethics of almost all societies, certainly his. Never mind that removing the boys of a particular age would leave a hole in the generation to come. Never mind that some of his own soldiers asked to do the killing might have boys of their own who were 2 years old or younger! He is not thinking about that level of detail. Like the murder of his favorite wife, this appears to be a knee jerk reaction out of anger. But because of his powerful position, once the words were spoken, they were implemented. No questions asked. There is no second-guessing the King, after all.
Killing children to hold onto power calls to mind the actions of another king. You find it in the very first chapter of Exodus. The Egyptian Pharaoh was trying to decimate the male population of the people of Israel because they were getting too numerous. They were enslaved by the Pharaoh and his guards, and as they became more populous, the pharaoh was afraid that they just might end up rebelling and taking over his power. First he tried to get the Egyptian midwives to do his dirty work, ordering them to kill the Hebrew boys when they were born. They would not. Then he decreed that all boy babies born to Hebrew women were to be tossed into the river. Moses is saved, of course, and Joseph and Mary would have defined the roots of their faith as coming from Moses who grew up in Egypt.
Living in a society that permits killing of children gets uncomfortable for me. How can we sit back and relax when kids are dying? Some get to escape, going to a boarding school outside of the danger zone, or moving with their family outside of the city. Some get to go back and forth from their private schools in cars instead of buses. Some children are safe. Many do not have that option. How can we sit back and relax?
Mary and Joseph did not sit back and relax. They took action. They fled Judea, removing their son from the murderzone for boys. Given the history of the Hebrew people, how ironic that they flee to Egypt for refuge, when Egypt was the place to escape from in Moses’ day. Someone in Egypt must welcome the refugee family in and provide for them. The fugitives need a place to sleep, food to eat, a chance to get their feet on the ground, a job. This is what any refugee in any time or place needs help with. Was there a Jewish community in Egypt? Or maybe it was a kind Egyptian woman who opened her home to this fugitive family, providing them with a safe place to be while Herod carries out his murderous campaign against any baby who could possibly be a threat to his power. You notice that Jesus has not even spoken one public word and he is already a threat to the establishment.
In September there was a threat to the establishment in Iguala, a town in the Mexican state of Guerrero, south of Mexico City. 43 students, mostly in their 20’s, were studying at a rural college to become teachers. They had traveled to Iguala to protest a lack of funding for their school. When Mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife found out about the protest, and saw that it would interrupt one of their planned social events, they ordered the police chief to stop the protestors. So the students were abducted by police, and are believed to have been turned over to three members of the Guerreros Unidos gang, who then killed them and burned their bodies before throwing some remains in bags in a river, according to Mexico’s State’s Attorney. Still to be proven is whether the mayor actually ordered the killing of the young people. The mayor and his wife have been arrested, and the former police chief remains a fugitive. The students were not planning a takeover of the mayor’s power, but were clearly a thorn in his side– this school has a long history of left-leaning activism. So Jose Luis took the age old tack– let’s just wipe out any threat by killing the young ones.
Human beings do turn mean and violent under certain circumstances, don’t they? We can not blame God for Joseph having to take his wife and son to another country for safety. Neither can we blame God when a young man from the Ivory Coast flees to the US for political asylum so he will not be hunted down by the new national leadership. Neither can we blame God when 15 children are killed in Baltimore in one year. The choices to kill or murder are human choices, ugly and painful exhibitions of the evil which swirls around all of the good and kind and faithful pieces of God’s human creation.
I agree with the grieving grandfather in Cherry Hill– We can’t sit back and relax when kids are being killed. We can’t change people– only God can do that. But we sure can work to change some of the circumstances that push people toward violence. We can partner with people who are actively pursuing positive endeavors in Baltimore, or in Kenya, or in Haiti, programs, resources, or personnel who can chip away at poverty, at lack of education, at health needs, etc. Surely that is how we can aid families who feel a need to run, to escape, to flee the danger zones. That is the way we get involved in protecting a fugitive family, wherever they might live. We can’t sit back and relax when kids are being killed. Amen.