Let’s Put Herod Back into Christmas (A Meditation on Matthew 2:1-23)

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. (Matthew 2:16)

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As long as I can remember, I’ve heard Christians bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas, the mad rush to buy gifts, the annual spending frenzy. “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas” was their recurring refrain. Although I’m sympathetic with the genuine concern here, I think it’s misplaced.

The commercialization of Christmas doesn’t actually exclude Christ. He’s there in the manger scenes we know and love, even in department stores and shopping malls. The Christ-child lies blissfully in a decorative, gilt-edged manger lit by neon and flashing colored lights, while the muzak drones, “Sleep in heavenly peace.” The problem is not that the commercialization of Christmas has displaced Christ. The problem is that this Christ doesn’t match the biblical portrayal. According to Matthew, Jesus did not sleep in heavenly peace. On the contrary he slept—if at all—in the midst of great danger and death. It’s difficult to sleep when you’re a refugee, fleeing for your life. It’s difficult to sleep with Herod around.

Unfortunately, the Christ that many Christians want to put back into Christmas tends to be a sentimentalized figure, strangely removed from the world of Herod—the real world of pain and brokenness. And so this Christ is largely irrelevant. A baby sleeping in heavenly peace is irrelevant to anyone grieving the loss of a loved one, to anyone who’s been sexually abused, to anyone living in a war zone. He’s irrelevant to the unemployed and the underemployed, to those struggling with doubt and disappointment. He’s certainly irrelevant to anyone sleeping downtown on a heating grate this winter. Tear-jerking manger scenes and soothing Christmas carols just don’t cut it in a world that’s full of the reality of Herod.

This is not to deny the traditional picture of the Christ-child lying vulnerable in Bethlehem with the wise men bringing gifts. But it’s important not to miss the point Matthew makes (quoting Micah) that the Messiah was born in small-town Bethlehem (no-place, Judah) because God bypassed glorious Jerusalem, the great city, where Herod ruled. And God bypassed Herod, king of the Jews, and chose to work through a poor peasant couple and a child of questionable birth-status.

And who comes to worship the child? Not Herod, nor any orthodox religious leaders, but pagan astrologers. This baby lying vulnerable in Bethlehem was perceived rightly by these “wise” pagans to be the true king of the Jews, whose birth had such cosmic significance that there was a new star in the heavens. Herod himself rightly perceived this baby lying vulnerable in Bethlehem to be a threat to his pretensions of power. So threatening, indeed, as to justify the frenzied slaughter of innocent babies.

This doesn’t mean we should never enjoy manger scenes or get teary-eyed when we sing carols or watch the kids acting out the nativity story. But let’s never forget why God showered his unfathomable love upon us at Christmas two thousand years ago: because he cared so much for our wounds, and for this suffering world, that he personally entered the fray, this bloodbath we call history, to redeem us—and history—from the bloodbath.

So, although I can appreciate the desire to “put Christ back into Christmas” in order to counter the commercialization of this sacred holiday, I want to suggest that we put Herod back into Christmas, and so counter the sentimentalized glitz with which the season has been papered over.

The fact is that Herod is integral to Christmas, because Herod places the birth of Jesus squarely in history. At one level that’s literally true. We date Jesus’ birth between 6 and 4 B.C. because Herod died in 4 B.C. and he ordered the slaughter of children under two. Herod places Jesus chronologically in history. But Herod also places Jesus in the harsh reality of history. Jesus didn’t come into some mythical, storybook, never-never land. He came into the world of Herod. The world we know only too well.

And he came to take Herod out. That’s what Christmas is all about: the decisive blow God dealt to evil, injustice, and suffering at the cross. But it started in Bethlehem, when a baby lying vulnerable in a manger threatened a tyrant. Can we, like the wise men, discern the cosmic significance of that this Christmas?

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This article by J. Richard Middleton first appeared in The Catalyst (Toronto), vol. 16, nos. 8-9 (November-December 1993) and received an award in 1994 for best “Theological Reflection—Inspirational” from the Canadian Church Press.

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Esau McCaulley was Dynamite! Report on the Rochester Preaching Conference

I just came from presenting with Rev. Esau McCaulley (doctoral candidate in New Testament at the University of St. Andrews) at the annual Preaching Conference of the Rochester Consortium of Theological Schools, held at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry (May 21, 2015). We had a great time, with lots of discussion, both in the Q&A after each talk and during lunch with the attendees.

My presentation on Matthew’s use of the Old Testament in the infancy narratives had considerable overlap with his presentation on Paul’s understanding of the Law in Galatians 3:10-14.

Just as I addressed Matthew’s use of four Old Testament quotations, Rev. McCaulley addressed Paul’s use of four OT passages in the Galatians text. In both presentations we argued that the New Testament writer in question (Matthew/ Paul) was reading the OT texts in context with significant discernment.

Further, we both focused on how the broader biblical narrative of Israel’s crisis/exile and coming Messianic resolution framed the argument of the New Testament text. And in both cases we addressed the communal and socio-political implications of the text relevant for preaching.

It looked like we had collaborated on our presentations, but we hadn’t. This just shows that when Rev. McCaulley begins as a new faculty member at Northeastern Seminary (part-time, at a distance this Fall, and full-time on campus in Fall 2016) there’s going to be great synergy in the biblical studies courses—and, indeed, with the entire core curriculum of NES, which emphasizes the relationship of Bible, theology, and praxis.

In fact, since Rev. McCaulley just signed his contract with Northeastern (the day before the conference), he is already technically on the faculty.

So I want to affirm the welcome to Professor Esau McCaulley that Doug Cullum, the Dean of NES, extended at the conference. Lots of students are eagerly looking forward to taking your courses and being mentored by you.

You can access Esau McCaulley’s blog here.

Herod as Pharaoh? My Talk for the Upcoming Rochester Preaching Conference (May 21, 2015)

On Thursday, May 21, I’ll be speaking at a conference called “From Interpretation to Preaching.”

My presentation will address Matthew’s use of Old Testament quotations/ citations in the infancy narratives (Matthew 1-2). There are four, five, or six citations, depending how you count them.

In chapter 1 Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 (the Immanuel prophecy), while chapter 2 contains quotes from Micah 5:2 (with an addition from 2 Samuel 5:2), Hosea 11:1, and Jeremiah 31:15 (plus a closing citation of “the prophets,” but there is no agreement what the OT reference is).

What Is Matthew Doing with the Old Testament?

As an Old Testament scholar, I’m interested in what Matthew is doing with these texts. Are they functioning simply as “proof texts,” or is there some exegetical strategy to their use?

Another, more theological, question is whether the infancy narratives in Matthew are simply a set of “feel-good” stories for the Christmas season; or do they have some intrinsic connection to the thrust of his Gospel? And if so, what might that be?

The title of my talk is “Herod as Pharaoh.”

Herod, Pharaoh, and Nebuchadnezzar

The connection to Pharaoh comes from Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 (which focuses on the exodus from Egypt). But I could just as easily have called the talk “Herod as Nebuchadnezzar” in connection with his use of Jeremiah 31:15 (which addresses the Babylonian exile).

Herod and David

There is also a link to David (as the shepherd of Israel) from the bit of 2 Samuel 5:2 that Matthew includes in the Micah 5 quote. But this is not an idealized David; the context indicates this is a David who is remarkably like Herod (and Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar).

The connection becomes clear from investigating each of the OT quotes in context. Not only do all the quotes address the crisis of ancient Israel in various sociopolitical contexts, but the context of the three prophetic quotes in Matthew 2 revolves around God bringing Israel back from exile and binding up their wounds.

Jesus as an Alternative “Son of David”

Matthew 1-2 is setting up Jesus, “the Messiah, the son of David” (Matthew 1:1) as a different kind of leader for Israel after their time of extended exile. Unlike Herod, and even David (both of whom have certain affinities to Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar), this Messiah doesn’t slaughter or oppress helpless Israelites, but rather tends them as a true shepherd (and ultimately suffers with them).

Matthew’s infancy narratives thus constitute a significant challenge to the leadership of first-century Israel.

So the subtitle of my talk is: “Matthew’s Subversive Use of Old Testament Quotations in the Infancy Narratives.”

Implications for Preaching

The introduction of Jesus in Matthew 1-2 has significant implications for us today, including for preaching that aims to get beyond pious platitudes. Indeed, Matthew’s vision of Jesus, the true “son of David,” generates a serious ethical challenge for the nature of leadership in the church and the wider society.

Esau McCaulley on Paul and the Law in Galatians

After my presentation, we will be hearing from Rev. Esau McCaulley (PhD candidate in New Testament at the University of St. Andrews), who will be joining the faculty of Northeastern Seminary in July 2015.

His talk is entitled “Preaching Paul and the Law in Galatians”; this is how he describes his focus:

“Everyone who preaches from Paul’s letters must eventually talk about the Law. This session will show how recovering the narrative of Israel’s history that informed Paul’s understanding of the Law can bring nuance and vigor to our preaching about the relationship between faith, Law, and the reign of the Messiah.”

For more information on Esau’s talk, see his expanded explanation here.

Second Annual Rochester Preaching Conference

Rev. McCaulley and I will be giving our presentations at the second annual preaching conference sponsored by the Rochester Consortium of Theological Schools.

The three Schools are Northeastern Seminary (where I currently teach), Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (where I used to teach), and St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry (where my church used to meet, until just recently). So I’ve got a connection to all three institutions.

Last year’s conference was held at Northeastern Seminary and the speaker was the president of Colgate Rochester, Dr. Marvin McMickle. In 2016 the conference will be held at Colgate Rochester and the speaker(s) will be come from St. Bernard’s.

This year’s preaching conference will take place at St. Bernard’s, with a focus on the value of serious biblical exegesis for good preaching (hence the title: “From Interpretation to Preaching”).

So this conference is not meant to be an introduction to preaching; rather, it is for those who want to dig deeper into Scripture, in order to reinvigorate their preaching. And you don’t even have to be a preacher to attend.

You can register for the 2015 Rochester preaching conference here.

This blog is also posted on the Northeastern Seminary website.