by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 2:1-12
Sometimes I explore social/political themes within scriptures on which I preach, but I steer clear of endorsing any political party or specific candidates from this pulpit. I’m a strong believer in the separation of church and state. As an individual citizen, I get to express my political opinions in other settings, but I don’t think you want your pastor telling you how to vote, and I don’t think you want your government telling the church what to believe and how to worship. The Church should be political without being partisan. For instance, preachers should be able to relate scriptures to modern political issues, but that line is getting blurrier these days as many evangelical preachers increasingly promote candidates from their pulpits—-partly because a presidential order in 2017 gave churches more leeway to be explicitly partisan, weakening, in my opinion, the First Amendment that prevents the government from establishing or favoring a state religion.
I don’t think God has aligned with any American political party. But it’s interesting that the preachers who do tell their congregations how to vote are silent on the many “political” themes that run through the Bible—-especially Jesus’s concern for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned. Biblical literalists often foment fear about immigrants in our country but seem to forget that Jesus’s family literally fled across a border to dodge King Herod’s edict, which we read about last Sunday. In fact, from his birth to his death, Jesus was targeted by the authorities of his day. Indeed, he was eventually given the death penalty by Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great. I don’t see many biblical literalists connecting the dots from Jesus’s plight to the plight of today’s immigrants.
Today’s reading from Matthew gives us the first example of the this Gospel’s critique of the Powers That Be. The infant Jesus and the Jewish people in general were being threatened by King Herod and his brutal empire. And the remainder of Matthew’s Gospel pits the empire of Herod and his successor against the kin*dom of God that Jesus preached. One Matthean commentator explains that the story of Jesus is literally about a confiict “between one king and another” (Carter 40). Maybe the question to guide Jesus followers when they go to their polling places is simply this: Will my vote further the kingdom of God or the kingdom of Herod?
According to Warren Carter, in today’s political story even the wise men “emerge as important indicators of the political subtext” that “runs through the Gospel” (43). The magi are “not so much [eastern] astrologers as political figures” who represent “an eastern kingdom” and who bring “gifts and signs of friendship and cooperation to the new king.” In order to introduce us to the political context of Jesus’s ministry and message, Matthew starts with the characters of the foreign wise men in contrast to King Herod, who sells out his own subjects. Jesus will later offer his followers a compassionate kin*dom that challenges the authority of the ruthless Roman empire and its puppet kings like Herod Antipas. And for that Jesus will be executed by the state.
Another commentator who also recognizes the political message in Matthew adds her appreciation for psychological themes raised in Matthew. Sea Raven recognizes in today’s story two archetypal characters common in literature around the globe: “the divine child” and the “evil ruler” (42-44) in her spiritual/psychological analysis.
Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and others have noticed common characters like these in world literature, character types that recur across various cultures. In today’s story of the wise men, the newborn child resembles other characters in many cultures’ folk tales, characters who are children with remarkable qualities or powers and who threaten to overturn an often corrupt system or individual in power.
The Christchild in today’s story is perceived by King Herod as a threat and might be considered an example of “the divine child” in literature. That a powerless and poor infant frightens a powerful and rich ruler exposes the king’s actual impotence. Of course, a function of archetypal literature is to tap into universal psychological experiences of us all, like “the divine child” within all of us that upends everything. The Divine Child is that part of ourselves that isn’t concerned about what’s proper, possible, or practical. The Divine Child that existed or exists in each of us at some point was/is passionate, radical, inclusive, nonviolent, and selfless. Which makes the child dangerous to authorities who want subjects that conform and are easily cowed (Raven 44). The Jesus story has a historic foundation. But it also has a universal and psychological truth that works on us at a more subtle level. This early part of the Jesus story helps us recognize the harm of Herod and anticipate the danger Jesus will face, all the while inviting us to let the godly child shine in our hearts.
Many characters in modern literature fit the “divine child” figure. Harry Potter, for instance, is an example in modern literature of an endangered child who seems to be a nobody but (spoiler alert!) who survives against all odds and turns out to be the savior of his people.
The Hebrew Bible itself has other examples of “divine child” characters who become saviors: Joseph and Moses, for instance, who narrowly escape death as children and eventually save their people. These characters overturn all expectations and challenge the way things are, exposing injustice, putting us in touch with what we don’t want to see, which is that free and unrestrained part of ourselves. Recognizing this type of character in scripture and in world literature helps us perceive a fundamental human need to find an inner strength which will serve not only our personal safety and growth but will benefit others.
But I’m specifically suggesting today that perhaps recognizing the “divine child” within each of us can also open us to a means of prayer. When we are feeling weak, ill-equipped for a task, unprepared and overwhelmed, the stories of Joseph, of Moses, especially of Jesus, all of whom nearly died in childhood, none of whom seemed destined for greatness or even goodness, nevertheless developed into godly figures who saved others. Jesus, who began life with a death sentence, become THE Savior in our religious context. One way of using this story prayerfully is to try to accept our own vulnerability and weakness while knowing that Jesus himself knew such weakness, and that God chooses weakness over, for example, the pride of Herod.
Which brings us to another archetypal figure in today’s Gospel story, of course. In contrast to the Divine Child Jesus, we recognize in Herod the Evil King (or in some folklore it might be the Evil Queen). While Matthew will note Jesus’s gentle compassion, what is Herod’s primary emotion and character trait other than his murderous jealousy? It’s fear (verse 3) in contrast with the magi’s great joy upon greeting the child (verse 10). Herod is frightened by the wise men’s description of a newborn. And when the king is terrified, so are his people. Because terrified leaders terrify others. Herod pretends that he intends to honor the child and he speaks to the wise men by echoing their terms. But Herod is a liar.
Fortunately, the wise ones, like Joseph, learn in a dream how to protect the child and so they return home “by a different road” without reporting back to King Herod.
Thank God there is always a different road that will move us away from fear. The Evil Emperor and the Evil Empire are stuck in rote reactions and roles. But the Divine Child learns and surprises us, challenges us, and takes us to new places.
How might the inner child’s response to the Evil King affect our prayer life? Unlike the child, Herod and his ego require things that are predictable, controllable. Let’s be aware of that tendency in ourselves. When that restrictive inner voice tells us, “You have no options; you are stuck with what is” then create. A new paradigm. A new story. Write. Paint. Launch a new church. Come out of the closet. Adopt a child. Commence a new career. Forgive a friend. Repair a relationship. Exercise your brain and body. Volunteer in ways that subvert the evil empire. Meditate and be silent. You will be able to recognize the imperial force of oppression and then refuse to collaborate with Herod. Prayerfully, you can silence the voice of Herod, and return by a different road, listening instead for the vulnerable but liberating child within.
His first followers saw Jesus as in line with the Hebrew prophets, as someone reclaiming God’s world as a realm of justice, as someone rejecting the Emperor’s values, as someone critiquing the social/religious establishment, too. Jesus was the Divine Child, untainted by the Empire and remaking the world with justice and compassion.
If we allow our Divine Child to rule in our hearts, maybe our deepest and most meaningful creativity can shine forth like the storied star of the East, and maybe then the conventional structures of our civilization that have atrophied into dysfunction and disorder can be overturned. Although the world’s rulers demand our fealty, it’s the Divine Child that we and the magi will honor.
We live in an empire that has forgotten to put our children first.
We live in an empire that has elevated power and pride and wealth and war.
We live in an empire that bullies and belittles.
We live in an empire based on fear. Herod is afraid. But the child is not. We are divine children of God and followers of Jesus.
Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2003.
Raven, Sea. Theology From Exile: The Year of Matthew, Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary For An Emerging Christianity, Vol II. CreateSpace, 2013.