Over the years I’ve said a lot about the New Testament, usually showing its manifold and various problems. But at most that’s half the story, and probably a lot less. There is something far more important: once you realize there are problems with a literal or historical reading, there is still the STORY. And the story can be quite powerful. Like all good stories, those of the New Testament can and should make us think and reflect. These are, at any rate, some of the most famous, influential, and life-changing stories in the world, not necessarily because they are historical (some are, some aren’t) but because they have a message to convey.
One of the most powerful and paradoxical stories involves Jesus’ birth in Matthew 2. He is born in Bethlehem and wisemen astrologers from the East realize that something of cosmic significance has happened. It is proclaimed in the heavens. They follow a star to where the King of the Jews has been born and come to Jerusalem to make inquiries. The Great King Herod hears about the wisemen, calls them in, learns what they know, finds from his Scripture scholars where the future king is to be born, and sends the wisemen along to Bethlehem to find the child with strict instructions to return and tell him so he too can go and worship the child. But they learn in a dream not to tell him, and when he realizes they have gone home another way, he sends out his soldiers to kill every boy two years and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. It’s a very ugly ending to an otherwise rather lovely tale. A lot of biblical stories are like that.
When I discuss this account while wearing my historical-critical hat, I talk about the plausibility of Jesus being born in Bethlehem, of stars that guide astrologers, of a star that stops moving over a city, and then over an actual house, of Herod the Great fearing the birth of a child, of him slaughtering all baby boys two years and under (when there is no record of it), of the contradictions of this account with what we find in Luke, and of other things. But it would be a HUGE mistake to think that once we settle all these implausibilities, we are done with the story. There is still the story.
The story teaches a lesson we still need to hear. What kind of king do we want? One who comes in order to serve others, who is destined to provide help for those in desperate need, or one who doesn’t give a damn about anyone but himself and his own power, willing to slaughter the innocents in order to make sure he stays in power? Any modern reader of the story should realize that this is not describing an event that happened. It is describing an event that happens.
On one hand you have the future king of the Jews, who relinquishes all his divine power in order to “save his people from their sins.” People have horrible lives, often of their own doing. This future king is willing to give up everything he has for the sake of helping others. In fact, as the reader already knows, this king is willing to sacrifice his life for others. Not just by dying of old age but by being publicly humiliated and tortured to death. This king will teach people to love others as themselves, to do what is right, to provide for those in need; and he models his teaching by how he himself lives. That is the nature of his rule, a rule of service.
And the other king? He is a brutal tyrant who pretends to be pious and godly. He claims he wants to know where the child is so he “too can go and worship him.” It’s a bald-faced lie. This king is nothing but lies. He doesn’t want to worship the child: he wants to destroy it. He cannot stand anyone who, but himself, will have power and authority. Any threat has to be demolished.
As a powerful king he is convinced that he is both above all law and above any standard of morality and right. When the king realizes he has been deceived, he acts in sheer vengeance. What have the innocents of Bethlehem done to deserve this? Nothing, obviously. They are potential threats and so they need to be exterminated. They, their mothers, their fathers, their family members, and anyone else with any decency be damned.
Throughout the history of the world, we have seen this kind of king on offer. They become the king of the Jews or the king of the Romans or the king of the Germans or the king of – name your modern country — because they know how to manipulate power and do so to promote their own purposes, working desperately to convince their subjects that their purposes serve the people’s purposes, when they couldn’t care less about their people. They want the power and the glory, world without end.
But according to this story, when that end comes, they will not triumph. The baby Jesus survives. He survives not to overthrow the regional or imperial authorities. He survives to fulfill a greater mission, to suffer and die in order to provide salvation for others. He conquers through defeat and rules by serving.
Most people will see this paradox as horribly naïve and nonsensical. But Matthew, and other biblical authors, insist that it’s true, that good will prevail, and that all of us have to choose which side to take in this short life of ours, which kind of ruler we want to serve. Do we side with the one who risks and then loses his life in order to help those in need, or with the tyrant who is bound and determined to do whatever it takes to retain his wealth, power, and fame, even if it means harming others?
It’s a stark choice. For those who observe Christmas, which do they prefer: the child who willingly gives of himself or the tyrant who ruthlessly takes what he can?