That’s the number of people who were forcibly displaced from their homes by conflict in 2015.
That’s the number of refugees there were in 2015.
Is the number of stateless people in 2015, people without access to healthcare, education, employment, and with no freedom of movement.
These are 2015 numbers; I suppose we don’t have accurate numbers for 2016 yet. They’re awfully big numbers to grasp. They boggle my imagination, and they may boggle yours too. Let’s try a smaller number.
We can do three.
That’s the number of refugees in today’s Gospel reading.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph were refugees.
They’d barely be reported on today, of course. Just another Middle-Eastern family caught in the tsunami waves of lost souls, thrown up by dictator upon brutal dictator. We’d blink and they’d be gone.
It wasn’t reported on then, either. There is no mention of the Slaughter of the Innocents outside of Matthew’s Gospel. Bethlehem has only been really well known since Jesus was born there. There are around 25000 people there now, but there were less than a thousand in the time of Jesus. ‘Royal David’s city’ was just a village then.
People did remember that great king David was born there, but you can only trade on your past glories for so long. David had been dead for a thousand years. The royal line was gone, crumbled into dust. It was supposed to last for ever. Where were David’s descendants now? Any that were still around were nobodies, like Joseph.
The dream of David’s line was dead among most people. There were those who kept fanning the flames of hope for a Messiah, but most had moved on.
And now we have three refugees. Joseph was descended from David. So what? The royal blood in his veins didn’t prevent him from being on the move, looking for a safe haven for his family.
He found it in the land of Israel’s ancient enemy. Egypt.
There are two ways we can go from here to really appreciate this story. Let’s briefly do both.
What was Matthew trying to say?
Matthew was painting a picture of Jesus as the fulfilment of Israel.
Joseph was guided by dreams, and went to Egypt. Matthew’s readers would have been immediately reminded of another Joseph, who also went down to Egypt and who rose in prominence because he could interpret pharaoh’s dreams.
They would recall a pharaoh who ordered that all baby boys were to be killed, just as Herod ordered the deaths of all children two and under. And they would have been reminded of another biblical hero who had escaped death as an infant, also in Egypt. I mean Moses, of course.
Jesus becomes the new Moses who will return from Egypt. In fact, Jesus is far greater than Moses! The first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—are known as the Books of Moses. So, Matthew has arranged his gospel in five sections. In Matthew, Jesus is the giver of the new law.
I can’t stress enough that for Matthew, Jesus is the embodiment of all that God called Israel to be; all of Israel’s hopes find their fulfilment in Jesus.
That’s one way of reading this passage—reading it in Matthew’s context. It gives us a beautiful way of seeing the wonder of Jesus Christ.
We also have to read it in our 2017 context, a context that must take the reality of refugees on board.
That’s where we need those big numbers. Today more people are displaced from their homes by violence, and more people are refugees than ever before in history. The days are soon coming when we will have climate change refugees. Pacific Islands like Kiribati are facing this inevitability right now. They are sinking, and will one day be abandoned.
In a world like this, what does it mean that Jesus was a refugee?
We believe that Jesus fulfilled the hopes of Israel, and much more than Israel, the hopes of the world. As Immanuel, God with us, Jesus has fulfilled what it means to be a human being.
As we read in Hebrews, he has shared the basest and most degrading experiences of humanity so that we may have confidence in his power to give us courage and deliver us. One of these base experiences was to be a refugee.
See this ikon. It’s called Christ of Maryknoll, by Robert Lentz. It shows Christ looking longingly through barbed wire at those on the other side. It is available with many others of his ikons in Christ in the Margins.
Notice that he is the risen crucified Lord—the mark of the nails are in his hands.
Question: Which side of the wire is he on?
Is he standing with the refugees on the inside, looking out with them as their crucified risen Lord? If so, then he is with them as the least of his brothers and sisters (see Matthew 25.31–46). He is with them as our Lord too.
Or is he on the outside looking in at us? Are we in some self-imposed prison of prejudice or fear? Do our anxieties imprison us? Dare we step outside and meet with the Lord who was a refugee?
What could a Christian attitude be to asylum seekers, to refugees? It could be to see the face of Jesus in them. This would be the most faithful response we could make.
Instead, our country keeps them in detention centres or keeps them out of sight on Christmas Island, Manus or Nauru. News is hard to get and heavily censored. I wonder why?
And what will 2017 bring?
When we begin a new year, we do well to set our sights on Jesus. Jesus who fulfilled the story of Israel, Jesus who is crucified and risen, Jesus who bears the scars of the cross still, and calls us to follow.
As Broadwater Rd makes plans for 2017, how will we do that?