The tidings of Jesus’ birth are tidings of a new expression of God’s abundant mercy and healing.
First published in The Mennonite (December 22, 1998), 4-5.
Often in the story of Jesus we see conflict: in how King Herod responded to the news of Jesus’ birth (the slaughter of the innocents); in how the people in his hometown sought to throw him over a cliff; in his conflict with religious leaders throughout his ministry; when Jesus was executed by the Roman empire as a political criminal labeled “king of the Jews.”
Why did Jesus’ way of life–one from all accounts peaceable and loving–lead to such conflict?
At the time of Jesus’ birth, wise men from the East visited King Herod (Matthew 2). They asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
When Herod heard this, he was frightened. He summoned the religious leaders to ask where the “anointed one” was to be born. Herod knew he was not the divinely anointed king of the Jews, even though he publicly claimed that role.
Herod knew his status as ruler was tenuous. He gained and maintained his power through brute force and political manipulation. He had little support from the common people around Jerusalem. Discontent with his rule was so high that a small spark could create a firestorm of revolution. Herod lived in constant fear–no matter how many enemies he tortured and executed, he knew their number continued to grow.
Herod asked the wise men to stop on their way back and let him know where this special child was so he could “also go and pay him homage.” The wise men found Jesus and gave him gifts. Then they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Jesus’ father Joseph also was warned, so he took Jesus and Mary away. They fled to Egypt and stayed there several years, until Herod died.
When Herod realized the wise men had tricked him, he was furious. “He sent for and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16). This was only the latest of his extraordinary acts of brutality. Earlier he had his two oldest sons murdered because he feared they were plotting against him.
This tragic story is an introduction to the entire story of Jesus.
Jesus exposed the violence of power politics. He exposed the violence that lies all too close to the hearts of all of us. He goes on to show us that God’s merciful kingdom is available right now to break this spiral of violence.
The story of Jesus is about the presence of God’s healing mercy in human history. This mercy enters a world of conflict. It is because we have so much conflict that we so desperately need God’s mercy.
Jesus, even at his birth, exposes the violence of King Herod. Alongside Jesus’ birth story, the joyful song of God-with-us, comes another song, a terrible song: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18). Such lamentations have too often been a part of human history before and since Jesus’ birth. His birth, though, signals a new hope that Herod’s violence may be overcome.
Scarcity and Abundance
Do we think of the basic stuff of life–from food and shelter to a sense of competence and of being loved–as scarce, something we have to fight for, grasp for, hoard, protect at all costs? Or is the basic stuff of life abundant? Can we trust in God’s provision for our needs? Can we be generous and peaceable, holding onto things loosely and with an attitude of sharing?
In his life and teaching, Jesus showed that scarcity is an illusion. He showed that abundance is real, that we may, like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, trust God for our needs in life. Jesus rejects the scarcity assumption and assumes abundance.
The tidings of Jesus’ birth are tidings of a new expression of God’s abundant mercy and healing. Herod’s response is fear (Matthew 2:3). Out of fear, people with brute power do brutish things.
Most conflicts accept the assumptions of scarcity. We fight to protect our scarce resources. We justify all sorts of violence in the name of protecting something we are afraid to lose–prestige, wealth, purity, God’s acceptance. But when we rely on force, on winners and losers, we end up with a series of battles, an eye taken for an eye until every eye is blind.
For Jesus, conflict is different. It arises when those assuming scarcity cannot accept abundance. Jesus’ way of abundance threatened those who thought in terms of scarcity. When we assume scarcity, we simply won’t know the generosity of God for what it is.
Jesus proclaimed that love is abundant in the very nature of things. That is how God has made and sustains the universe. We need only accept God’s love and trust in God’s abundant mercy. This simple trust, though, requires a radical change in our consciousness, a conversion–from the fearful, clenched-hand world of scarcity to the courageous, open-handed world of abundance.
Several years ago, I was eating lunch with a friend whose office was located in a rough part of town, not too far from the railroad tracks. A hobo had come by to see my friend a few days earlier with a tape deck he had found and wanted to sell for $20. My friend said maybe, but first he’d check to make sure it wasn’t stolen. When I was there, the hobo stopped by to see if my friend could buy the deck. My friend said the deck was okay, and he gave the fellow the money. The guy’s face lit up and he left, heading for a nearby grocery store. He came back a few minutes later with a gift for each of us, a bottle of soda and a pastry he had bought with his new store of wealth. He could not think of hoarding, only sharing.
Two Kinds of King
King Jesus taught that abundance means rejecting dividing people into insiders and outsiders or limiting God’s mercy and love. God’s kingdom is for all people. Jesus ate with tax collectors and other “sinners,” forgave the woman caught in adultery and promised paradise to the criminal on the cross next to him. Jesus received all who wanted to come.
Jesus was a genuine threat to King Herod, to the religious leaders, and to the Roman empire. He approached life with an entirely different script from that of scarcity and grasping and fearfulness. Jesus wrote a revolutionary script of trust, acceptance, openness, and mercy. Anyone who genuinely hears Jesus’ word will no longer find it possible to accept Herod’s definition of reality but will give homage to an altogether different kind of king: the peaceable king, Jesus.