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Visions from the Catacombs, Week before January 5, 2014


Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Now after the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."

What I am Learning:

Matthew is not a reporter with a video camera writing down the exact time/date/location and who/what/where/when/why of events. The writer of Matthew is more like a poet, artist and a preacher who is weaving together a narrative about Jesus – and therefore a narrative vision of his own community.

His community is probably a mostly Jewish community. They know their Hebrew Bible really well. That means that a single word or phrase can mean a lot. One of the challenges of reading Matthew, or having a discussion about his writing, is unpacking all that meaning without getting, well, boring.

I encourage us to resist the temptation to take the 4 gospels, and to make them into one big gospel by arranging the stories into a larger story. Each gospel is emphasizing something different about Jesus and let’s respect that. Jesus is bigger than our words about him. So are we, for that matter!

Joseph continues to receive angels of the Lord in his dreams and he is faithful in that he follows the instructions of the angels. Take note that Joseph is named “Joseph.” Like his namesake in the Hebrew Scripture, he goes to Egypt. Joseph was the youngest of the sons of Jacob. He was most loved by his father and this aroused the jealousy of his brothers, who put him in a pit and then sold him to slavery. He ended up in Egypt and rose to be a counselor of the Pharaoh. He then saved his family from a famine, forgave his brothers, and his family moved to Egypt.
Of course this story does not end all that well, as a new Pharaoh comes along and then enslaves Joseph’s whole clan. The experience of getting out of Egypt is considered the beginning of the religion of the People of Israel: A God who hears the cries of the oppressed and knows their suffering.

This Joseph will also go to Egypt for safety from the tyranny that is taking place in Palestine. The irony would have been very obvious to Matthew’s Jewish audience. Now the land of Palestine is the new Egypt and a new struggle for freedom was needed. God would be faithful in this struggle as God was in getting the people out of slavery in Egypt.

Matthew is telling his community, I think, that the odds are against Jesus – even against him becoming an adult.

Why would he emphasize this so much?

One reason might be that Matthew’s own community is under a lot of pressure. The Romans were typically quite respectful of old religions, but brutal in repressing new ones. Christians were considered a new religion and so were persecuted. Further, Matthew’s community had suffered estrangement from other Jewish people. This made life hard.

How would they survive? What were the odds of their survival as a community?

Whatever they were, Jesus shared those odds, he faced the same challenges they were facing.

When I read the scriptures, I try to place the text in what I understand to be its first-century context. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be in the same situation as first-century Palestinians for the text to speak to us.

Matthew is saying that despite the challenges facing his community, that God would see them through to a new day, to a brighter future.

We are facing many challenges today. Like Matthew, we believe that God is working to bring a brighter future and a new day for humanity – even if the challenges of global warming, cultural conflict and economic inequality seem overwhelming.

God still comes in dreams, and calls us to keep our vision alive for an earth healed, and the human race whole.