“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we… are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled…And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again…. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him…And Herod…was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under…”
[Note: the following analysis is motivated by and indebted to the observations of several of my newfound BCC colleagues, in particular Ronan and Kevin]
Kevin’s recent discussion about the birth narrative raises important questions about the ability of critical scholarship to to yield fruitful devotional and faith-promoting insights for our engagement with scriptural texts. Part of what I hope to demonstrate with this post is that a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the historical context within which the Gospel narratives are believed to have taken place can profoundly enrich our understanding of their meaning.
One of the most striking elements of story outlined above from Matthew’s gospel is the sheer cruelty of Herod’s reaction against a perceived challenge to his power—his willingness to indiscriminately slaughter untold numbers of small children to root out the threat. The violence is especially shocking to us today, because we live in a world in which children enjoy a historically unique position of social status, legal protection, and general affection. Yet the ancient world into which the Savior was born was vastly different from ours, and the difference is thrown into sharp relief by the truly precarious status of children—particularly infants—in the peasant society of the Palestinian countryside. A child, writes New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, “was quite literally a nobody unless its father accepted it as a member of the family rather than exposing it in the gutter or rubbish dump to die of abandonment or to be taken up by another and reared as a slave.” In that society, “a child was a nothing, a nobody, a non-person.”
To some extent young children were viewed as chattel, regularly sold into slavery for food by impoverished parents, or simply discarded when their potential productivity as workers was outstripped by cost of feeding and caring for them. A peasant from northern Egypt wrote the following in a letter to his pregnant wife around the time of Jesus’ birth: “When the child is born, if by chance you bear a son, let it be; if it is a girl, cast it out…I urge you not to worry.” Such attitudes are scarcely imaginable today. Children endured a uniformly marginal status among an abused social class (the peasantry) of a subjugated people (the Jews) on the outskirts of the sprawling Roman Empire.
Approximately three decades later, a group of Judean peasants gathered around a charismatic rabbi on a hot summer day. As the throngs of listeners pressed toward the healer and holy man called Jesus of Nazareth, the patience of His disciples began to wear. The people, poor, coarse, and uneducated, brought their children to hear His message of the kingdom of God:
And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein (Luke 18:15-17).
Stepping outside of our own cultural mindset, perhaps it is understandable why the disciples dismissed the children—these “non-persons.” Not that eastern Galilean peasants did not love their children; but the vicissitudes of pre-modern life and the unthinkably high levels of infant mortality simply did not afford them the tender, sentimental view of children we take for granted today. A child was not truly a person until it reached a certain age and was granted status by its father. Jesus’ actions with the children—touching them, laying His hands on them, taking them into His arms, blessing them (Mark 10:16)—represented the official acts of a father designating a newly born infant for life rather than death, for accepting the child into his family rather than casting it out as useless trash. As Ronan has reminded us, if His is indeed a Kingdom of little children, “Jesus is, in a profound way, also saying that his is a kingdom for all those whom the world considers to be ‘nobodies.’ And in Jesus’ world, that meant the poor, the sick, the slaves, the sinners.” By focusing His message of the kingdom on children, Jesus demolished the barriers that separate those who lack worth and status in the eyes of the world from access to God.
Christ’s kingdom of nobodies presented a radical challenge indeed to the rule of Herod, whose power rested on collusion with an Imperial throne that imposed order, fortified social stratification, and enforced economic productivity with efficiency and terrifying brutality. Herod accurately perceived the threat to the existing order and with casual vindictiveness punished his impoverished subjects, demonstrating their expendability to his rule, for the mere suggestion of an order in which wealthy, educated, well-traveled men condescended to worship the child of peasants. The story of Jesus’ birth in the most abject of circumstances invites us to consider what kind of kingdom that momentous and celebrated event was meant to inaugurate; to ask ourselves whether labels we apply to each other to divide and marginalize (words like “liberal,” “conservative,” “gay,” “inactive,” “immigrant,” etc.) have any meaning in such a kingdom; and to ponder the genius of the Master, who brought us access to the Kingdom of Heaven both through His atoning sacrifice and by teaching and exemplifying the principles by which we might enter.