Before we put away the decorations and crèches used in the Christmas and Epiphany celebrations that are taking place around the world, there’s one more episode in the stories surrounding these holidays that’s often glossed over too quickly. Whether any or all of these stories is historical can’t be determined, but this final episode is there in the Gospel of Matthew to complete the saga that’s meant to teach its readers lessons that it considers important.
The previous episode of those foreign Magi and other outsiders honoring the baby Jesus in Bethlehem that’s symbolically depicted in countless nativity scenes wasn’t the conclusion of the series. Matthew 2:12-18 instead goes on further to teach its readers one more thing: that the “Holy Family” are comrades with any who have had to flee their home or homeland for protection.
The Magi, the Gospel previously said, had been to the capital city, Jerusalem on the way to Bethlehem. Their inquiries thereby alerted King Herod and his dutiful political and religious advisers that they were searching for what their astrological signs had predicted: a new king of Israel has been born.
Now, as they were about to return home to Persia after finding Jesus, the tale adds, they were warned “in a dream” not to report their findings back to Herod and to take an alternate route home (2:12).
Herod, feeling that he was tricked by the Magi out of their report of what they had found, concludes that he must squelch any threats to his power. In anger, he orders the deaths of “all the male children who were in Bethlehem and its surroundings aged two years old and under.” (2:16) The Church over the centuries has depicted this in art and story as “the Slaughter of the Innocents.”
Joseph is also warned “in a dream” to immediately take his family and flee their home country into Egypt for protection. He is told not to return until Herod is dead. Typically, Matthew portrays all this drama as the fulfillment of various “prophecies” in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian’s “Old Testament”).
“The Flight into Egypt,” as it’s depicted down through the ages, adds another note to the beginning of this life of Jesus – the fact that he and his family became refugees who would, when the danger had passed, return to Israel, but never to the unsafe area of Judea where Herod’s son was the new ruler.
The three ended up farther north, as refuges from the new ruler of Judea, by returning to Joseph’s native home, Galilee and a city called Nazareth.
That finally completes all that Matthew wants us to contemplate before it moves immediately on to Jesus’ adult life. Cut and scene.
But what’s the point? Why is this also included among the stories of Jesus’ birth, historical or not?
The Gospel itself ties the episode to the epic story of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt – Matthew 2:15 quoting Exodus 4:22: “Out of Egypt did I call my son.”
Throughout the Hebrew Bible there was a consciousness of the fact that the Hebrew people fled the oppression of the Pharaohs of Egypt to a land where they were refugees. That “Exodus” is held to be a central definer of Hebrew identity.
Its law codes included special concern for the protection and welcoming of refugees. Leviticus 19:34, for example, commands: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
Imagine loving the foreigner in your land “as yourself” – there are no “legal” or “illegal” foreigner distinctions here. It seems so far from the anger, fear, and hatred expressed by those religionists whose nationalism has taken over their religions.
And if those old law codes in the Hebrew Bible mean anything, it’s a major sin not to love the alien. Even Matthew 25:34-40 depicts Jesus saying it was he they were serving when they “invited the stranger [alien?] in.”
That Matthew extended the infancy story to include the teaching that Jesus and family were literally refugees, strangers in a foreign land, should be enough for people to know who they must not disparage but love. Jesus and his family were a paradigm of people fleeing oppression, persecution, danger, and death.
Not only does this apply to refugees who seek foreign shores, though they are certainly ones who need that love as Jesus and family did.
It applies to anyone who can only save themselves by leaving their home to escape oppression. It applies to anyone who leaves their home and/or homeland to face the unknown, the hope that it will be better in a “Promised Land” than it was back in the familiar, though dangerous, even deadly, environment in which they grew up hoping for acceptance and affirmation,
It teaches us to think lovingly of those youth kicked out of their families, or fleeing its abuse, for being LGBTQ. It teaches us to love the LGBTQ adults who had to say goodbye to families who would not accept them or the people they loved.
Not only did the Hebrew Bible single out loving care for those who were refugees in the land, but Jesus and family modeled what it was to be refugees, Matthew extends the Christmas story to tell us.
This final chapter of these stories around these holidays was written, then, for anyone fleeing for refuge, anyone driven from their home or homeland. It tells its readers that it is not a disgrace to flee and seek refuge, it is not a failure of character, it is not because there is something wrong with those who flee to save themselves, their lives, and their dignity.
It is actually something that is to be honored down through history in stories, art, and the good deeds of the religious.
This final episode tells all for whom it’s a teaching moment that no one who seeks refuge from abuse in their home should be treated less than they would treat the hero of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus himself.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.