Born a Refugee - Matthew 2:1-15

We generally think of immigrants and refugees as people not like ourselves. To some degree that is correct, as we do not live the same conditions that make them refugees or immigrants. On the other hand, there is not as much to cast them as “other” as we are wont to imagine. Perhaps the real issue is that we find it easier not to relate to those who live different lives, such that our own lives do not become inconvenienced by struggles we don't quite understand. Because we deem them different, we can write them off without much more thought.

What is clear in the gospels, however, is that Jesus continually placed himself in the position of identifying with the refugee, outcast, immigrants, stranger, and marginalized to ensure a clear message of God's care and concern for those we would write off. More than once in the birth narratives, we find Jesus identified with outsiders. In Matthew's text, we find Jesus becoming a refugee.

Matthew tells a different birth story for Jesus than does Luke. Well, actually, Matthew does not really tell us anything about Jesus' actual birth. He gives us a prelude to what happened prior to the birth. Then he skips to a story that takes places some time afterward. This story was probably closer to two years later. Unlike the manger scene of Jesus' birth in Luke 2, we find Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in a house. Life had moved on from the days of Jesus' birth, and they had settled into new routines.

It is in the midst of these new routines of life that Jesus quickly moves from living under the whims of an oppressive Roman political system to living the life of a refugee fleeing Herod. Magi had come from the East, probably Babylon, where Abraham had originated. These astrologists studied the stars as more than balls of exploding gases. They understood them to be divine beings, what we would call angels or gods. Like Egyptian theology, they understood the stars to control and announce the will of the gods through their positions and arrangement in the night sky. Their worship centered around knowing the stars and other lights of the night sky and tracking them.

All of this was beyond the pale for any respectful Jew. This was a form of idolatry, the worship of lesser deities that could not hold a candle to Yahweh. Genesis had declared the stars simply lights in the sky marking off the seasons, but these foreigners understood them as beings of power and influence. There was no role for such considerations in Judaism, for there was only One worthy of our worship. In spite of all that, however, Matthew records for us that God deigned to announce the birth of Jesus as Messiah to these foreigners, even while Israel remained oblivious to the wonders going on in their midst and for the benefit of all.

These magi should not have had any understanding of Yahweh, but Yahweh allowed them in on a secret the priests of Jerusalem were not privileged to understand. Luke reported that shepherds heard the news, but Matthew's account is much more shocking. God told idolatrous star worshippers through their own attempts to interpret the stars that Yahweh was doing something important in Israel. It was given them to know that Messiah, long-awaited by Israel, was born to become king.

They set out on the thousand-mile trek from Babylon to Jerusalem. Then these magi went and announced to Herod they had arrived to worship the newborn king of Israel. That did not make Herod happy, but he tried to put a good face on it. He was upset that anyone might conceivably interfere with his hold on power as one of Rome's puppet kings. He called together the scribes who studied the Scriptures to determine where to look for the child. Once he heard Bethlehem was the place, he sent the magi on their way, expecting them to report back so he might be rid of this potential threat to the throne. This was, after all, the same Herod who had his own son murdered to protect his position on the throne.

God intervened in Herod's plans, however, alerting the magi not to return to Herod, but to leave Israel and hurry back home. After presenting presents and homage to Jesus, they left rejoicing, somewhat oblivious as to the consequences for children in Bethlehem.

Herod ordered all the boys under age two killed in the region of Bethlehem. He was rather set on protecting his grasp on power. Joseph and Mary, however, were also warned of Herod's coming actions. They were sent to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod.

That was also a long trip, though Egypt was not nearly as far away as Babylon. They would have needed the gold given them by the magi to finance their journey. They would not have applied for permissions to travel, crossed border checkpoints, or had passports stamped. Rather, borders were much more fluid in those days. There was a consistent movement of people back and forth across borders. Travel was a difficult and expensive prospect where people moving across borders became vulnerable as outsiders to the social, political, and cultural systems. It was a difficult journey, but it was a transition into an even more difficult life.

As refugees in Egypt, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus would be vulnerable for not speaking the local languages. They would be oppressed and looked down on as outsiders. They would struggle without the support system of family and friends who could put them up at night, help Joseph locate employment, and see them through the rough spots of life. They would easily find themselves in the position of Abraham who found himself pressed to pass Sarah off as his sister, except that Joseph was a day laborer, not a man of means and social importance.

We do not know how long they would have stayed in Egypt, except that Matthew tells us that when they got word of Herod's death they determined it safe to return to Israel. Returning home was the best course of action for them. It was the simplest course of action, for living in a foreign land without one's support system is no simple way of life. There are just too many ways in which immigrants and refugees find themselves the brunt of different modes of oppression. The only reason they had left Israel in the first place was a specific threat against Jesus, that from Herod.

In that sense, this family was not like the refugees of today, at all. While they fled a specific threat from one person in power against Jesus alone, refugees across the millennia have fled persecution from much more generalized threats. They flee war, genocide, and economic devastation of their homeland from varied sources. In the case of Jesus' family, the threat was resolved with Herod's death, and yet this experience of oppression was faced directly by God living in flesh and blood among us.

Matthew tells us that the point here is God's identification in Jesus with the plight of an oppressed nation across the centuries. Out of Egypt Israel had been called in times past. Out of slavery, oppression, and marginalization. The nation had been formed from the roots of a nomadic people, later enslaved, but all the while oppressed by the power structures around them.

It is into this backdrop that Jesus was born. He was born to become a refugee, though he was God. He was born to live among us, taking on the burden of the least in the eyes of society. It is in that identification with those we marginalize that we find the character and identity of God. It is there we find the purpose of our redemption. May we follow the same star that would lead us to this child who came to identify with the poor, immigrants, and refugees, living among them and becoming as they are.

©Copyright 2017, Christopher B. Harbin 


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