They have an efficacious power
written deep within the interstices of their syllables;
these words of Jesus.
We disciples should repeat them often,
even the difficult ones.
We should speak them confidently
with an attitude of blessing, hope
Be at peace! Forgive!
Love your neighbour!
(And your enemies.)
Do for others
as you would have them do for you!
Walk away from your wealth!
(How did that one sneak in?)
Be free! Live fully! Follow!
laying aside reservations
and overcoming our inhibitions,
we might even voice the words
loudly, in public spaces.
We could spray them rudely on walls,
pass them out with cups of water,
or paint them boldly upon our faces;
shouting with appropriate outrage and defiance,
and causing good people
In the fears and uncertainties of first century Jewish politics
an insecure monarch lusts after the niece
who also doubles as his step-daughter.
At a birthday banquet,
the girl entices the gathered dignitaries
with a dance.
teasing and taunting;
she knows how to shake it.
In the old man’s fantasy foolishness
half a kingdom is offered
as the prize for his pleasant titillation.
A prophet’s head,
severed from its outspoken owner’’s body
and proffered upon a platter,
is the price prescribed
by the girl’s vengeful mother.
A king’s self-importance is never a small thing.
His ego expands even further
in the presence of multiple weighty witnesses;
the offending voice will be silenced.
It’s been all about power, lust, politics, pride, and retribution.
Between them, over the next two millennia and beyond,
these evils will account for the larger part
of the world’s pain and sorrow.
During that time other offensive voices will be raised
and many will be silenced.
But an outrageous few will recklessly persist
so that the kingdom,
the kingdom grounded in love and truth and sacrifice
In his birth stories, gospel writer Matthew
gives us the terrible tale sometimes called The massacre of the innocents.
It seemed plausible at the time of writing;
this callously brutal act, ordered
by a despotic monarch
for the sake of preserving his kingship.
In more recent years
historians and scholars
have dared to ask the question:
did it really happen?
They point to a shortage of corroborating evidence
beyond the scriptures;
along with the Moses story,
and the need to solve
the Bethlehem – Nazareth conundrum.
Traditionalists, of which there are a few,
point to the character, or lacking,
of Herod the Great, a ruthless tyrant
who would tolerate no limitations
to his pursuit of power.
Without doubt he was capable
of ordering such a terrible deed,
as have been so many kings and rulers since.
In the last hundred years
there has also been no shortage of tyrant:
dictators who have cruelly
oppressed their own people,
tribal leaders who express their hatred
with guns and machetes,
presidents and Prime Ministers
who declare bloody, high-tech war,
on the slimmest of pretexts.
Few have dared
to directly target children,
but these little ones have borne
more than their share of suffering.
Historical considerations aside,
it is good that this Christmas text reminds us
how the small, the innocent, the weak
and the vulnerable, have so often
paid the price demanded
by the wealthy and the strong.
And still do.
The wealthy and powerful ones;
rulers, kings and major shareholders
do a lively trade in information.
They invest some of their ample resources
in finding out stuff, analysing trends and opinion,
and gathering whatever facts can be assembled
from their multiple sources
in order to gain advantage over everyone else.
Knowledge, they say, is power;
who would argue?
In his terrible nativity story, Matthew
presents us with the despotic Herod,
who, sensing a threat to his kingly power
in the unlikely birth of a child,
demands, of his royal advisors,
insight and opinion. It is his hope
that when the appropriate dots
have been successfully joined,
they will indicate a profitable course of action. And just when,
he confidingly enquires of the wise strangers,
feigning concern for the success
of their crazy adventure; did the star first appear?
Having sent the gift-laden travellers to Bethlehem,
in accordance with some long-forgotten oracle,
he awaits their return,
along with the specific details,
(parents, street name and number),
that they will supply.
He must have waited some time;
the successful pilgrims, as the story goes,
were recipients of further information,
and went home by another way.
The ever-pragmatic Herod was unconcerned;
it was a minor inconvenience.
Their answer to his earlier question
had been duly noted by his scribes;
it would be sufficient for his mathematicians
to make the necessary determinations
that would allow his troops to do their job.
The baby’s parents also received advice
that enabled them to choose a path to safety.
Not so blessed were other young children
in Bethlehem. Knowledge, they say, is power;
You say you want a revolution,
well you know,
we all want to change the world.
Revolution #1, John Lennon, 1968.
The revolution failed in 1968.
The students of Prague, Chicago, West Berlin,
Paris, Mexico City, Madrid and other such places,
yearning, as they were, for a more just and true society,
gave it a fair shake,
but they were up against an indescribable behemoth.
In Luke’s gospel, the child-woman Mary
was the unlikely harbinger of a revolution
in which the powerful
were to be brought down from their thrones
and the lowly lifted up:
Vive la revolution!
It was left to her son and his assorted crew
of fishermen and stirrers to make the running,
to protest the injustice of power, greed and wealth,
among other things, in his own day.
His revolution failed, too,
but it gave rise to a movement that never quite died.
These insurgents achieved the occasional small victory,
but have not yet realised their lofty goals,
even after two millennia.
The demons continue mighty, powerful and fierce;
having added to their toolbox
of cunning and treacherous devices,
these fearsome powers go undetected and unnamed.
Still there remain a defiant few
who have not bent the knee before the gods
of capital, greed and comfort;
a vestigial company, marked by love,
that sees beyond the shining lights
and the glistening lies.
They form a tenacious remnant,
and hold tightly to outrageous dreams,
determined to maintain their revolutionary fervour.
They refuse to surrender to despair;
they will not abandon hope.
For a long time now
the rich have liked the church.
Across the centuries
they have accommodated themselves
to its structures, institution and power;
(it’s been mutual),
permitting the church its sphere of authority
while determinedly maintaining their own.
Striving after respectability and influence,
not to mention their reserved seats in heaven,
the wealthy have been generous
with their patronage, constructing
buttress, edifice and spire.
(To be fair, the poor
have paid for their share of gold-leaf,
stained-glass oaken beams and dressed stone, too;
more often than not, subsidising the rich.)
The affluent have joined the church’s boards,
sat in on its councils,
propounded their advice,
shared their expertise,
sought and given favours
and requested ecclesiastical blessings
upon their many enterprises.
Some suggest that the wealthy and powerful
are seen too much in the company
of presbyter and priest.
The rich, it must be said,
find Jesus bewildering.
They hear stories:
about the teacher quietly suggesting
to a virtuous man of means,
that his life would be greatly enhanced
if he sold all his stuff and gave it to the poor.
On another occasion the carpenter
outrageously asserted that God and mammon
were incompatible masters;
and when he spoke of the unlikelihood
of camels squeezing themselves
through the eyes of needles,
the rich began to get the idea
that Jesus might not have been on their side.
Still, there’s always the church.