Traditional societies are usually ordered with some kind of clan chief, or lord, or king at the apex of things. You might imagine all the king has to do is raise an eyebrow or snap his fingers, and slaves would feed him cherries and fill up his wine glass.
But you know, the king was often in a very insecure position. Frequently, there were others who thought they could do a better job. Since there were no elections, and a king had to die to be replaced, it wasn’t unusual for there to be plotting and scheming behind the scenes. A lot of plotting and scheming! (Sounds like the Australian political scene…)
King Herod the Great wasn’t in a safe position. He wasn’t popular, not by a long shot. He’d been given the throne by the Romans, not the Jews, and he’d had to fight for it. He had half a dozen fortresses in which to hide away if he need to; three were in Jerusalem, Caesarea and Masada, all places some of us went to earlier in the year. He killed anyone he suspected of plotting against him, including his wife Mariamne and a son. When he knew he was about to die, he ordered that political prisoners should be executed so that there would be grief and mourning once he was dead.
This is the political background of the first Christmas. It is central to Matthew’s version of the story of the Nativity, which is really quite different from Luke’s; only Matthew talks about the wise men, Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the Innocents, and the Holy Family going down to Egypt. Matthew is doing this to tell us something very important in his story: firstly, that Jesus is greater than Moses; and secondly, that he is the Son of God, the true fulfilment of everything an Israelite was meant to be.
Let’s look at that in more detail another time. For today, I just want to point out that in Matthew’s story Jesus is a refugee, an asylum seeker, an illegal immigrant. His family had to escape persecution, and they found a refuge in Egypt of all places. Continue reading