Collision PDF Print E-mail

By Elizabeth Achtemeier
(Reprinted from Presbyterians Pro-Life NEWS, Spring 1999)

One of the most difficult texts in the New Testament for us to reflect on is Matthew 2:16-18, which has been called "The Slaughter of the Innocents." It has been celebrated as a saints' day ("Holy Innocents, Martyrs") in highly liturgical churches since the second century A.D. And it invariably collides with the sweet sentimentality that we associate with wise men and shepherds and a babe lying in a manger. Indeed, it horrifies us when we think about it. Why should the birth of the lowly babe in a cattle's stall in Bethlehem lead to such bloodshed?

The worldly reasons
The worldly reasons are not difficult to understand. King Herod is so afraid that his power will be usurped that when he hears the report of the birth of the King of the Jews, he orders the slaughter in Bethlehem of all of the male children under two years of age. The order was typical of that despot. He killed many people, including his wife Mariamne and three of his own children, along with countless political prisoners, so that Emperor Augustus remarked that it would be better to be a pig (hus) than Herods son (huios). But Herod wanted to be in charge!

It was not too noteworthy an event. Many scholars have written that the slaughter of the innocents probably never took place, because there is no other mention of it. But life was cheap in the days of Herod, and the murder of 20 or 30 children was not an event to be recorded. The children just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and their deaths were not important.

Certainly that's the attitude of many with regard to abortion too, isn't it? A pregnancy has occurred in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the proper solution is to get rid of it. It could easily usurp a woman's control over her own life, and like Herod, she wants to be in charge.

The collision
The truth is, of course, that God has other plans, and that's what Matthew wants to tell us in this troubling story. With the birth of his Son Jesus Christ, God is working out his plan for the salvation of his world. Repeatedly Matthew tells us, "This was to fulfill what was written" in the Old Testament (Matt. 1:23; 2:6. 15, 18; 3:2, etc.): God's plan is moving for-ward toward its destination. But then comes the collision: God's plan banging up against Herod's fear and ambition; God's purpose threatened by man's; God's power up against the powers of this world.

It has always been thus. Matthew's story reminds us of Pharaoh's order to the midwives to kill any newborn male (Exod. 1:15-22). The power of this world is arrayed against the power of God. And is that not the case also when any woman is contemplating undergoing an abortion? Certainly God has a plan for the woman's unborn child - - God doesn't create new persons in the womb just for no purpose at all. He plans to incorporate that unborn person into his working toward the salvation of the world, maybe in the most humble fashion, maybe as a very important part of his ongoing work.

But then Gods plan for every unborn child bumps up against the fear, the ambition, the indifference, the embarrassment, the pride of human beings who are determined to supplant God and to be in charge of their lives. Sometimes in miscarriages or stillbirth, the Lord's purpose bumps up against the universal corruption that has altered even our genes, so that children whom God intended to live are born dead instead. In one way or another, this sin-pocked world plays havoc with God's plans. And God is deprived of millions of infants whom he created in the womb. All over the world, Matthew would say, God's angel chorus gets turned into the lamentation of Rachels weeping for their dead children.

The Good News
But God is in charge of this world and human life. He is always in charge. And so the good news is that Jesus Christ is saved in God's plan in our text by the angels warning to Joseph to flee to Egypt. And our Lord grows to be that new Moses - - and more than Moses - - who gives the new law on the new mountain to all who would be delivered by him in faith out of their slavery to sin and death.

More than that, Jesus Christ identifies with our human misery in his flesh and takes our killing within himself, and dies the death that we so carelessly, or perhaps in anguish, administer to one another. But that too is not the end of God's working. Christ is risen and new life is given in him. And from proud slaughterers or anguished weepers we can be turned into forgiven Christians, who can in fact become cherished participants in Gods purpose for his world.

Elizabeth Achtemeier is former adjunct professor of Bible and Homiletics at Union Seminary in Richmond.



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