Thoughts on the Meaning of the Birth of Jesus

“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…”
—Matthew 2:1-11

[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.

Comments

  1. Sadly, in some cultures children are still treated as chattel with famale children being killed both before and after birth and children being forced to work in reprehensible circumstances. We might even take a hard look at the living circustances of children here in the US. Inner city children, Native American children, and children of the poor live in circumstances that we could probably never comprehend. However, I do think that western cultures do have a higher regard for children, at least in principle if not always in practice. I wonder what is at the root of our sensibility?

  2. Indeed, Brewyhaha. This post was not meant to minimize the very real problems that still prevail in much of the world or to relegate such problems to the bygone past. If anything, it was meant to underline the historical and present-day uniqueness of the status of children in modern, first world society. Reading such sentiments into the gospel narrative is just as presumptuous and distorting as reading our own social values onto cultures different from ours or expecting them to prevail in places that have not undergone the specific historical process that make them possible.

  3. Brad,
    Interesting that I had just been thinking about the slaughter of the innocents. What a horrible price they paid at the advent of God. It is an awful thing to contemplate the blood upon which the kingdom will be built. We all shouted for joy when contemplating this veil of tears; those of us whose mortal tears are slight would do well to consider the high price paid by others and do all we can to alleviate their suffering.

  4. Thank you, Brad, for that beautiful introspection. It’s become a daily exercise for us to use labels on people around us (I’m especially guilty of it while driving in traffic), but your message really hits home. Something worth applying in our lives more conscientiously.

  5. The one thing my wife and I have been able to do with our limited resources is open our home to our children’s friends – many of whom do not live in abject financial poverty but do live in various degrees of spiritual and emotional poverty.

    Beautiful post, Brad. It touches me deeply – and I’m sure it will find its way into the talks I give throughout the new year.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    A very touching post, Brad.

    One of my favorite Christmas carols is actually Coventry Carol, one of the few songs to focus on this dark episode of the slaughter of the innocents.

    There is a bit of an ambiguity in Mt. 2:16. A pais can be a boy or a girl. Here the word is an accusative plural with the masculine definite article, tous paidas. That might mean that the children that were slaughtered were the boys only, which would make some sense given that only a boy could be the messianic king Herod would have feared. On the other hand, the masculine can simply be inclusive of boys and girls, leading to the common translation “children.” And what is the likelihood that the henchmen sent to do this deed would bother trying to distinguish the gender of babies? Not much. So it likely was not just sons but all children two and under that were slaughtered.

    We have no way for sure to know how many that would be, but if we posit both genders were slaughtered, and taking into account the small size of Bethlehem as essentially a hamlet, a good guess would be 50 or 60 children.

    Just imagine–50 or 60 babies to young toddlers murdered in one fell swoop! That puts v. 18 into pitiable context:

    In Rama [an alternate name for Bethlehem] was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping [for] her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

  7. Christ loved and included women in His ministry, which was also unusual for the culture. Reading the gospels with our 21st century eyes, it is easy to lose sight of how radical and breath-taking Christ’s teachings and dealings with the people truly were.

  8. “Christ’s kingdom of nobodies” Thank you for that.

  9. Brad and Bob, I’m speaking on grace and the atonement and how to honor our “divine Christmas gifts” in two units this month, and I have been looking for a good way to sum it all up. I think I will use “Christ’s kingdom of nobodies” in the conclusion.

    Again, thank you.

  10. Great post, Brad. Not to be picky but you might want to correct the first scripture citation from Matt 3 to Matt 2. :)

  11. Thanks, Aaron.

  12. Just curious Brad if you think that Western Christians see this contrast more than most given, as you pointed out, our higher regard for children and a higher standard of living. Children are still poorly treated in many countries, Western society included, but rearly do you see young ones recruited for militia service among other things here. So, understanding the historical context, might we appreciate Christ’s love for children more than a culture that still shows vestages of the older mindset toward them?

  13. I think it’s important to see in this story something more than just a love for children per se. Treating children as fully fledged, lovable persons was part of a larger program that included the fellowshipping of the socially and ritually unclean, a communal table with sinners, a ministry that prominently featured women, undergoing a Messianic anointing in the house of a leper after declaring the temple at Jerusalem as utterly unclean, being homeless and relying upon the goodwill of his mostly destitute fellow travelers, demanding self-imposed destitution from prospective comrades burdened by high rank and social status, etc., etc.

    Oh, and utter contempt for the social, political, and religious elites who benefited from and sought to reinforce and sanctify an order based upon oppression, exploitation, marginalization, inequity, and iniquity.

    So my answer is, Yes I do think the ministry of the Savior and His treatment of children and all the outcast should have very unique meaning for Western (read: First World) Christians.

  14. The current situation with sub-prime loans is not outside the scope of Brad’s post, imo – nor is the difference in the cost of basic goods in poor, inner-city neighborhoods verses more affluent suburbs. (I do NOT want this to turn into a debate on those topics, however. I use them only as examples of “grinding the faces of the poor”.) Lack of preventative health care, the treatment of those with AIDS, counseling for unwed mothers, homelessness among the mentally disabled – there are many examples of the continuing existence of marginalization and disdain beside the treatment of children.

  15. “versus” not “verses”

  16. I appreciate the post, Brad, as well as several of the comments. This is good stuff.

  17. Ronan, thanks for your fascinating and beautiful use of homophony in #3. I’d not thought of the vale of tears as a veil of tears before. I like it. And nice post, Brad.

  18. Wow, Brad. Thank you for this timely and thought-provoking piece. Simply beautiful.

  19. Thanks Brad — I love this season for thoughts like these that distill on us. Glad you shared this.

  20. I’ve recently put out a couple of negative comments so I have to specifically thank you for this post because it is so well done. Your line that “his is a kingdom for all those whom the world considers to be ‘nobodies’” parallels how President Hinckley has commented to the effect that “the Gospel makes bad men good and good men great.”

    Thank you, also, for helping us focus the holiday season on the birth of the Savior.

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