Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Risk of Faith

I’d like to begin with an observation. Matthew is the only New Testament writer who tells us about Herod and the massacre of the children. The other gospel writers don’t say anything about this. We don’t read about it Paul’s letters or any other epistle. Maybe they did not know about it. Maybe they did not want to talk about it. We can think of lots of reasons for this silence but the fact remains that only Matthew tells us about Herod’s order to kill all the boy babies in Bethlehem and in the surrounding area. So it is fair to ask why Matthew thought it was important to include this event in his telling of Jesus’ birth?

That is an open-ended question. It does not have a right answer. It does not have just one answer. I want to suggest two possible reasons for why someone in the early church would want to include a story like this at the beginning of a story about the messiah.

One possibility is that Matthew wants us to think about a theology of life—and more than just think about it—Matthew insists that we should become advocates for life in a culture of death. He wants us to be lovers of life against all odds. The message could not be clearer. King Herod reigns over a culture of death. King Jesus is the “Lord of the Dance” (Sydney Cater) who leads us into a kingdom of love and delight. Matthew wants to draw a sharp contrast between these two kingdoms. That might be one reason for telling this story. Herod’s power, the ultimate power of the state, is the power of death. God has the power of life.

A second reason for telling this story here, at the beginning of the gospel, is to get us to face up to realities we would rather not acknowledge or confront. It is easier to look away from this scene of death than it is to look at it. But Paul Tillich, one of the pre-eminent theologians of the last century, taught us that if we want to communicate this gospel the first thing we have to do is understand our predicament. To illuminate what he meant by this, Tillich cited Pablo Picasso’s painting “Guernica,” which he called “a great Protestant painting.” It is a painting that crystallizes the horrors of the twentieth century.

It is an overpowering painting all done in shades of grey and white. Picasso created it after the Germans bombed the Basque village of Guernica at the request of General Franco in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. It is a complex painting. I cannot describe it other than to point to a few images. At one end of the painting there is a wide-eyed bull whose eyes are filled with fear. It is standing over a woman who is holding a child and weeping.  She, like Rachael, refuses to be comforted for she is weeping for her children who are no more. It is one of the saddest sentences in the Bible. She is weeping because her children are no more.

 At the center of the painting is a horse falling in agony. Above the horse is a light which represents the bombs falling. The light is drawn in such a way that it also represents the naked light bulb that hangs in the torturer’s prison cell. On the far right there is a human figure reaching skyward, and the image of an airplane coming to bomb the city. It is a powerful picture and once we look at it, we can’t look away. Tillich says that the only thing we can do after we see this painting is keep our eyes open, and look for the rise of new religious art.

I hear the voice of Bob Dylan singing “Masters of War.” He says of these masters, “You’ve never done nothin’ but build to destroy. You play with my world like it was your little toy.” In another line the song says “You’ve thrown the worst feat that could ever be hurled; Fear to bring children into the world.” This is the world of Herod, the king. In the words of Martin Luther King, it is a world of improved means that are being used for unimproved ends.”

In addition to these armed conflicts there is a less visible but no less cruel war in this country.There is an economic war being waged on the poor and working families. It is not only income inequality that we must fight but even more important is wealth inequality, which is more important because it determines social mobility. Let me offer just two figures. According to the most recent data that I could find, the top 10 percent of our population possesses 80 percent of all the financial wealth privately held—that includes income, pensions, investments, real estate—all forms of wealth. The top 1 percent possesses more wealth then the bottom 25 percent. It is a staggering figure. We cannot comprehend it or really believe it.

In this culture of death which masks itself as a culture of life and opportunity, we need to look for the rise of new religious art. Perhaps that is what Matthew means when he tells us that Joseph was warned in a dream to take his family to Egypt. Then in a second dream he was told it was safe to return home. And in a third dream he was told not to go to Jerusalem or Bethlehem, but to the north, to Galilee and to the city of Nazareth.

Do you remember in your English class you learned about the comparative and superlative cases: good, better, best; much, more and most. When we read something in the Bible and it is repeated three times like that, the writer is using the superlative. Matthew is telling us that this story of Jesus is the best story. This is the most important story. We have to pay attention to this story, because it is a story about the kingdom of life.

Now I don’t think that Joseph or Matthew were libertarians or cynics who believed that no government is good government, or that small government is the best government. Matthew’s point is that nations will behave as nations, and we should not expect them to do otherwise. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, said in a recent interview that we need governments to help us solve problems that inevitably arise in the human community. That is a paternalistic and minimalist definition but it is better than some other definitions of the role of government. Given this definition, we are going to always need governments. The world population today is over 7 billion people. We are adding more than 100,000 every day; and over 80 million every year. That is a lot of people and a lot of problems.

But we can think of this data in another way, too. In a poem called For The Time Being: a Christmas Oratorio (Meridian Books, 1957), W.H. Auden says that God is charging into earth in birth after birth. It is like God is asking us, 100,000 times a day, “Don’t you get it?” I am the God of life, and I am not going away.

Matthew exposes us to what Tillich calls “the risk of faith.” The risk of faith is not a question of what deity we choose to believe in. The risk of faith is not, do you believe the right doctrine or teaching. The risk of faith is an existential risk. The risk of faith means risking where we will look for the meaning and fulfillment of our life. Matthew is urging us to take a risk on life.

David Hansen
Painting - Massacre of the Innocents by Giotto de Bondone

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