Tag Archives: Ulrich Luz

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (February 4-10) in Year A (Mundahl)

We are Epiphany communities, being salt for the Earth and bearing light for the world. Tom Mundahl reflects on Isaiah 58 and Matthew 5:13-20.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary  (originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023) 

Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]

Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

Matthew 5:13-20

There are few things more satisfying than baking good bread. But that bread depends not only on quality of flour and the skill of the baker; its quality also is related to the right balance of ingredients. I remember the time I forgot the salt. Not only did the dough rise too quickly, this visually lovely loaf had no taste whatsoever!

This week’s First Lesson from Second Isaiah teaches us a thing or two about religious practice that has the appearance of a fine, fresh loaf, but has no taste. The prophet takes a hard look at what Paul Hanson calls “faith in the subjunctive mood” (Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 204). As the prophet reveals, “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance (mispat) of their God” (Isaiah 58:2a).

Apparently, the most religious had transformed what they considered “religion” into private acts of prayer and ritual “leaving the entire realm of social relations and commerce under the domination of ruthless, self-serving exploitation. . . .” (Hanson, p. 205). But the prophet stands firmly in the traditions of his guild, which reminded the people of their liberation from Egyptian slavery, their dependence on God’s sustenance in the wilderness, and the gift nature of their land. Because they had received these generous gifts, they were to be generous in sharing—especially with those in need.

This is the logic undergirding Isaiah’s definition of authentic religious practice. “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them and not hide yourself from your own kin” (Isaiah 58:6-7).

The results of practicing honest religion point to a healing that extends to the whole creation. Not only will “your light break forth like the dawn” (Isaiah 58:8), but bones—the structure of personhood—will be strengthened and “you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11). This integrity will result in a marvel of urban planning, repairing a city whose foundations will nurture many generations with the lure of “streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:12).

In fact, this restoration will be a return to the very intention of creation, celebrated with the creation of Sabbath on the seventh day. Isaiah’s account of the effects of authentic repentance (“fasting”) culminates in a vision of “life’s fecundity and fresh potential. Once the bonds of oppression that maim and destroy life are removed, then life can flower into the diverse and beautiful forms that God planted in the first garden” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: 2011, p. 166). As a result of this renewal, all creation enjoys the interdependent harmony of “Sabbath delight” (Isaiah 58:13), where all creatures celebrate the memberships of life as they share their bread (Wirzba, p. 165).

Because this week’s Gospel Reading immediately follows a sobering account of what those who are “blessed” to be joined to the “kingdom of heaven” can expect—being reviled and persecuted as the prophets were (Matthew 5:11)—one wonders if “delight” is even remotely possible.  But recall that the final beatitude concludes with a call to: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).

This joy is clearly stronger than any persecution the Roman Empire or the elite religious opponents will provide. But it requires this new community to live in harmony with its gracious identity. The parallel statements “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:14) and “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14) move them in this direction. While salt has many uses, its primary function has been to season food. As Ulrich Luz suggests, “Salt is not salt for itself but seasoning for food. So the disciples are not existing for themselves but for the earth” (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, p. 251). The purpose of the light metaphor is much the same, leading to the intended result (both with “seasoning” culture and the earth and “vision”) “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Clearly, Matthew’s Jesus is not advocating a “works righteousness” schema. For him, a person’s actions are integral to identity. Salt becomes effective only by salting. Light becomes valuable only when it shines. To indicate to the new community “you are the light of the world” confers both identity and the sense that it cannot but be realized in action. “Matthew speaks without embarrassment of good works, without meaning self-justification by works” (Luz, p. 253).

More important for us may be that the predicates of these two statements: “you are the salt of the earth” (5: 13) and “you are the light of the world” (5:14). For this new community embraced by a new kind of regime, the earth is the focus of its action. This is crucial, since Matthew’s narrative suggests that the kingdoms of the earth are under control of the devil, a nasty, but justified slap in the face for the Roman Empire (Matthew 4:8). It is this Empire that claimed to be able to provide “bread” for its people, but often gave them little more than “bread and circuses.”

Why these powerful images of salt and light? As Warren Carter suggests: “They emphasize the missional identity and lifestyle of disciples. While participation in God’s empire is blessed, it mandates an alternative way of life that challenges the status quo. This is a costly demand for a minority and marginal community, vulnerable to being overpowered by, or accommodating itself to, the dominant culture. The two images strengthen that identity and direct its way of life in a hostile context.” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 139)

We began this commentary with a consideration of bread baking, where I shared a failed attempt to bake bread without salt. Not only was it tasteless; the dough had risen so much and so quickly, the bread had no “crumb,” no structure. To a faith community called to be “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), this has important implications for care of creation.

Without a limiting factor, humankind seems much like bread dough that is intent on fermenting—rising with no end in sight. Whether it is emitting carbon and other greenhouse gases, wasting increasingly precious water, or continuing the collection of often unneeded consumer items that overwhelm disposal capacity of land and sea and are recycled at an unsustainably low rate, especially in the U.S., the absence of limiting discipline is frightening. Not only does this dishonor the “material gifts of creation,” but it forgets, as William Rathje and Robert Lillienfeld have shown in their indispensable book, Use Less Stuff, that recycling has always been a way to maintain consumption and has never historically solved the problem of excess (Rathje and Lillienfeld, Use Less Stuff, New York: Ballantine, 1998, pp. 6-26).

Earth needs “salt” to limit all these dangerous increases. Wirzba suggests that faith directs our focus to being where we are and paying attention to community (including creation community!) needs. “As we dedicate ourselves to understanding our place in the wider world, we can learn something of a habitat’s or community’s limits and possibilities. . . . And we can draw upon the faculty of our imagination to envision possibilities for improvements” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford: 2003, p. 155).

Yet, Wendell Berry is right about the difficult balancing act that care of creation and sharing good bread involve. “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is desecration” (Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land” in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981, p. 181). As an Epiphany community bearing necessary light, we must also be “salty” enough to provide a vision of limits that will, at minimum, slow down the destructive forces threatening God’s creation.

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                                                 tmundahl@gmail.com

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (January 28 – February 3) in Year A (Mundahl)

When we turn around, we receive the unanimous approval of the mountains, the hills, and the foundations of the Earth. Tom Mundahl reflects on what God asks of us.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

This week’s texts do nothing less than turn the world upside down. Their power stems from the gracious outpouring we call creation: “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it . . . .” (Psalm 24:1). For God to create is to open a place in the triune life for others, to offer hospitality in a circle dance of community which has no boundaries.

We can see the profound respect for creation in our First Lesson from Micah. Here, this late eighth-century prophet acts as “process server” delivering the indictment of a divine lawsuit (rib) to the people of Jerusalem. And “who” acts as the “Greek chorus” or “jury” witnessing this bill of particulars? The LORD, as prosecuting attorney, tries this case before the mountains, hills, and the foundations of the earth (Micah 6:1-2).

This is a “jury” that cannot be bought. Here are witnesses that cannot be tampered with. Understandably, in a court this open and honest, Jerusalem cannot avoid responsibility for the centralization of land ownership (Micah 2:2) and judicial corruption described as “tearing the skin off my people” (Micah 3:2). No wonder the people cry in despair: “With what should I come before the LORD . . . ?” (Micah 6:6).

Naturally they suggest all sorts of ways in which they can placate the court without changing basic attitudes—low bowing, burnt offerings, offering of yearling calves, or even first-born children (Micah 6:6-7).

These suggestions are at once too manipulative and too simple. The prophet puts it plainly in a way that summarizes a century of prophetic faithfulness and creativity: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Although there is nothing new about these words (e.g. “kindness” is hesed, covenant loyalty and care) except their beautiful crystallization of faith, moving from a culturally approved set of norms to practicing justice changes everything! It defines repentance: turning around and getting a new mind. When that happens, the approval of mountains, hills, and the foundations of the earth is unanimous!

Paul’s message to the community in Corinth calls for a reorientation similar in scope. After his “indictment” for falling into factionalism, he offers a primer describing the very basis of the life of those “called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2). This foundation is not the cunning of human judgment.

In fact, it is self-interested human judgment which has gotten in the way of unity. As Hans Conzelmann suggests, “Common to the parties is the demand for proof of divine truth. In this way they set themselves up as an authority that can pass judgment upon God . . . . They expect God to submit to their criteria” (Hans Conzelmann, First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 47). Like the religious elite Micah confronted, Paul calls his audience to “give it up,” to relinquish expecting God to meet their standards!

Paul strips away the illusory power of human criteria. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). It is precisely this god-project, setting people, institutions, and governments up as ‘ultimate authorities,’ that has led to discrimination, violence, economic inequality, war, and ecological distress. For “our standards and criteria” are always partial and can never include the whole of creation. They always benefit only “us”—however that “us” is construed.

But there is another way, according to Paul, a way beyond the self-concern of people, communities, or institutions. This is demonstrated by the obedient One whose concern for renewing creation was not limited even by self-preservation. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom (standards and criteria), and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

The Roman Empire and Jesus’ religious opponents responded to the threatening newness he brings with all they had—specifically, the cross. A recent “botched” execution by “lethal injection” in Ohio took nearly half an hour and caused the victim of this torture to gasp several times. Crucifixion involved a much longer public humiliation before death—from many hours to several days. It was the most persuasive argument Pax Romana had that no one should defy the powers that be. Yet, Paul’s message is that this act of violence failed miserably. The compassionate and just God triumphed over those powers. As Richard Hays suggests: “Rather than proving the sovereignty of Roman political order, it (cross and resurrection) shatters the world’s systems of authority. Rather than confirming what the wisest heads already know, it shatters the world’s systems of knowledge.” (Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 31).

Now Paul turns to his audience and asks them to consider their calling. None of them were called because they met adequate divine standards and criteria. That makes it clear that, using the logic of the cross, despite their membership in this motley assembly and their checkered histories, they have been made part of a new and unified community. It is nothing to “boast about!” For that reason, self-assertion or factional promotion have no place. Like the sheer graciousness of creation, belonging to this new community that lives by standards considered “foolish” by the kingdoms of the world is a gift. A gift full of promise and consequences.

These consequences become clearer in the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount—the Beatitudes. Now, Jesus, whom Matthew has introduced over his prologue as Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23), the “one who is more powerful” (Matthew 3:11), the Beloved Son (Matthew 3:17), and, later, one who brings the new counter empire, “the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 4:17), climbs the mountain to teach. In Micah, the hills and mountains served as witnesses to the trial of God’s people (Micah 6:1-2). In Matthew’s temptation narrative (Matthew 4:1-11), the tempter offered Jesus control over “all the kingdoms of the world” with the proviso that Jesus worship the one making the offer (Matthew 4:10). Here the mountain continues to serve as a major character drawing both teacher and learners away from the demands of daily life in order to allow Jesus to act as composer whose “first movement” sounds the major themes that will shape this new community infecting all that Pax Romana stands for.

Beatitudes are not unique to the Sermon on the Mount. They go beyond describing personal qualities and emotions (“happy are…”) to declaring God’s favor for specific human behaviors and often declare “God’s future transformation or reversal of present dismal circumstances”  (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 130). What’s more, “They . . . mark out features of a faithful and favored or blessed and honorable group.  They constitute, affirm, and challenge a community’s distinctive identity and practices” (Carter).

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3), then, becomes a thematic melody coursing through this entire “Sermon.” They are ones who are literally poor, ill, marginalized and outcast. They are victims of the power structure, much like the fishermen called to be the first disciples, whose trade was hampered at every turn by Roman regulations. They certainly do not set standards or criteria for acceptance in their worlds! Their very “spirits” are suppressed by the Roman Imperial System, and are poorly served by much of Jerusalem’s religious elite. Yet, they are named “blessed” because now that the status quo is fading; “theirs is” the kingdom of heaven.” Poverty and hopelessness are ending. “The beatitude blesses the ending of current imperial structures through God’s action” (Carter, p. 132).

The consequences of God’s action in bringing a “new order and community” are vividly described in the third beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). While “meekness” has been caricatured as passive incompetence  and laughable mildness, it actually suggests a combination of courage and patient hope that trumps all the attention-getting antics of the power elite. Perhaps more appropriate translations would be “humble,” with its connection to humus or “kind” with its suggestion of commonality and its relationship to hesed, covenant consideration for all (cf. Micah 6:8, see Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, Minneapolis: Augsburg: 1989, p. 236). “To be meek is to renounce retribution and to live faithfully and expectantly” (Carter, p. 133). Perhaps Paul’s “Christ Hymn” in Philippians 2:5-11 describes the power of this humble meekness best.

“Humility” fits well because “the humble meek” are promised that “they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)  “God, not the meek, will overthrow the elite so that all may use the earth. The present inequitable access to land, based on exploitative societal relationships, will end” (Carter). Why? The earth and all its creatures belong to God.  With this new “humble empire” it will be nurtured and cared for. Certainly the sabbatical and jubilee traditions suggest ways forward.

But even though the promise is sure, this is not the end of struggle. The final beatitude, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” makes that clear (Matthew 5:11). That has always been the fate of the prophets (Matthew 5:12). But as disciples called to be “fishers for people” (Matthew 4:19), that is, those who follow in the tradition of the prophets shining a light on injustice and corruption that the powerful want concealed, they can this expect in this “not yet” time no less.

Recently, the President of the United States spoke to the concern of NSA surveillance, an issue that would surely not have been addressed had not Edward Snowden focused a huge beam of light on the scope of U.S. information gathering and its implications. During this Epiphany season, all those who live in the concrete hope of the Beatitudes are called to “let their lights shine” so that the creation damage that we do, and often are complicit in, is uncovered. We do this in confidence that the “criteria and standards” that have allowed Freedom Industries in Charleston, West Virginia, to avoid responsible care of toxic materials will disappear, and that a new and humble world, community, and neighborhood will emerge spearheaded by God’s people.

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                                                 tmundahl@gmail.com

Baptism of Our Lord (January 7-13) in Year A (Mundahl)

Gentle justice for people and creation:  Tom Mundahl reflects on Jesus’ baptism and the first Servant Song of Isaiah.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord (January 7-13), First Sunday after Epiphany in Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34 -43
Matthew 3:13-17

As we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, we are reminded of the power of baptismal liturgy. As those called by the Spirit and trusting the grace of God gather around the font, the presiding minister invites the candidates and sponsors to affirm the responsibilities they are entrusted with. Among these gifts of responsibility is the charge “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006, p. 228). These words help us to understand that the gift of baptism is also a task, that “only those who obey believe” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, New York: Macmillan, 1963, p. 76).

Perhaps it is confusing as to why “the more powerful one” (Matthew 2:11) needs to be baptized by John the Baptist, who has freely admitted his inferiority. It certainly seemed to be incomprehensible to John, who “would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). In response, we hear Jesus’ first words in Matthew’s Gospel: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).

Because this is the first direct speech in this Gospel from the one called Emmanuel, the words must have jumped out at readers and hearers. From the beginning, Matthew’s Jesus defines himself as the obedient one. He does this to “fulfill” all righteousness or justice. And what does this “fulfillment” mean but to “actualize” that justice through obedience in the midst of the community (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, pp. 178-179).

Far from isolating Jesus from the discipleship community, his baptism unites them in the service of a “meta-legal” righteousness that is integral to the call to make disciples of all nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Next to the title Emmanuel, which serves as an inclusion for Christological identity (1:23 and 28:20), it is the obedient “Son, the Beloved” who gives shape to Matthew’s story. Jesus’ identity consists not so much in pre-existence or in miraculous conception; rather, in Matthew, that identity is found in unique obedience (Luz, p. 180).

This obedience, then, colors the shape of the community. Members will share in this new life (“be called children of God”—Matthew 5:9) when they “actualize” justice through peacemaking or, even care for God’s creation.  The opening of the heavens not only responded to the cry of Isaiah, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down . . . ” (63:15), but demonstrated that here is a greater prophet (“a more powerful one”) than Moses or John, one whose New Exodus moves far beyond a mere parting of the seas. Now all that separates humankind from Creator and creation is torn away. This freedom is now to be lived in the “simple” obedience of everyday life.

How this freedom is lived is also suggested by the unfolding of Matthew’s baptismal narrative. As Jesus comes through the waters, the heavens opened, and the Spirit descends, a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). While Mark (with Luke following) reports the voice as saying, “You are my Beloved Son . . . ,” Matthew uses the third person. Clearly, the voice does not speak for the benefit of the Son, but to John the Baptist (and all who might follow him), as well as to the crowds (which surely include the Christian community).

However, the meaning remains the same: here is one who is both royal figure (Psalm 2:7) and servant (Isaiah 42:1). For the community, this implies that living in free obedience is both a royal privilege and test of servanthood. It reminds us also of the richness of our first reading, the text that introduces this notion of servanthood.

It may be wise at the outset to assume that many layers of meaning are unleashed by this “Servant Song.”  Westermann suggests that our understanding is impeded by the question, “Who is this servant of God?” Instead, more helpful is retaining a sense of mystery by focusing on how the identity of the servant is formed and what the servant is called to do (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p. 93). In much the same way, Hanson suggests that these servant passages fire the imagination of the community in exile so that a new self-understanding and life response is called forth (Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p.41)

If the identity of the servant cannot be pinned down, the servant’s task is clearer. This one is called “to bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1b). This very task has become “an invitation to reflect on the responsibility of all those who acknowledge God’s sovereignty and recognize the dependence of all creation on God’s order of justice” (Hanson). When this “order of justice” is ignored, the result is chaos and oppression affecting both human history and the natural world. When Indonesian agricultural land traditionally farmed by small holders is expropriated in favor of large corporate plantations for the production of palm oil, not only are farm families displaced, but massive tree cutting causes soil erosion and removes vegetation capable of absorbing carbon.

But the servant brings forth this justice in a gentle, careful way.“He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:2-3). This non-violent approach is the path to “faithfully bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:3b). With this approach, the “end” does not justify the “means.” Instead, justice and peace are not only the goal; justice and peace are also the way. As Hanson suggests, “To live consistently in the service of the justice of God is to pattern one’s life on the nature of God. Only in this way is a mortal empowered faithfully to bring forth justice” (Hanson, p. 46).

This is the way to bring “light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6b-7). Perhaps it is the deep connection with creation (Isaiah 42:5) that gives Second Isaiah a view of justice as light, light which cannot be contained by political or parochial religious boundaries. This Servant Song, then, is a description of the kind of “servant” that all who are chosen and obedient to God are challenged to become. It is a helpful template for living our baptismal life.

Fred Kirschenmann has lived baptismal obedience through connecting farming and faith. As Director of the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Farming at Iowa State University, he also took over management of his North Dakota family farm of more than a thousand acres. While neighbors warned him that moving to organic agriculture would result in lower yields, Kirschenmann persisted, knowing that in the long run it was the right thing. Imagine his surprise when, after five years, crop yields began to increase as the naturally enriched soil became more fertile (Interview with Peter Pearsall, www.yesmagazine.org  February 22, 2013).

Kirschenmann acknowledges the pressure to become more “efficient” through the use of herbicides, pesticides, and genetically-modified seeds. Yet, he also knows that the best chance for people throughout the Earth to achieve food justice is with a decentralized farming culture that invites people to stay on the land and learn “local ways” of regenerative agriculture. And, there are surprising benefits of more traditional farming. At first, typical, relatively compacted farm soil will absorb a half-inch of rainfall per hour. But after five years of organic care, that same soil may absorb up to eight inches of rainfall per hour. That soil not only can handle drought better, but sends less runoff, including toxic chemicals, through the Mississippi watershed to the Gulf of Mexico (Pearsall interview). That is obedient gentle justice for the nations.

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                                                 tmundahl@gmail.com

First Sunday of Christmas in Year A

We need greater courage and imagination in standing up against those who would destroy Earth.  – Tom Mundahl reflects on Matthew 2:13-23.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2013)

 Readings for the First Sunday of Christmas, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

My late father-in-law kept mules and an impressive Belgian mare named Dolly at his home in central Iowa. The few times that I spent Christmas there before pastoral duties occupied my Christmas celebrations, I noticed that on Christmas Eve he would spend more time than usual  in the barn with these powerful animals. It took me years to gather the courage to ask him, somewhat playfully, if it was true that on Christmas Eve even the animals give voice to Christmas joy. He merely smiled in a most mysterious way. As the traditional Matins service for Christmas Day suggests, it is a great mystery: O Magnum Mysterium.

We have just celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As we continue the Season of Christmas, we have almost been convinced that “heaven and nature sing,” that “Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and cedars!  Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds” (Psalm 148:9-10) join to celebrate the incarnation.  Then we are confronted with Herod’s slaughter of the “holy innocents.” Although we may be tempted to conclude that this is little more than an aberration on the way to the greater light of Epiphany, a close look at the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke disabuse us of our naivete.

Did not the Christmas Eve reading from Luke 2 graphically subvert the pretention to divine power of Caesar Augustus in favor of “the Savior, who is Messiah, the Lord?” (Luke 2:11). In the face of the overwhelming military presence of Rome, this one was able to call upon “an army of angels” (Luke 2:13).  And these warrior-messengers proclaimed the good news in words stolen from Caesar, who had inscribed them on tablets throughout the Empire. The “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10) and “the peace to God’s people” (Luke 2:14) use Caesar’s language to point to a new source of sovereignty, who as the genuine Savior and Lord brings “peace” to the earth (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome Then and Now, San Francisco: Harper, 2007, pp. 107-108). How could this not have occasioned a violent response?

Much the same is true with Matthew’s infancy narratives. Like Luke, Matthew gives us a historically tenuous, but theologically rich prologue to his Gospel. Here, the Emperor is replaced by Herod the Great, a loyal vassal, who is now seen as an analogue to the Pharaoh of the Exodus narrative. In fact, it could be argued that Matthew gives us the history of Israel compressed. This evangelist begins the story of Jesus with quotations from Genesis (1:1), Exodus (2:15), and Deuteronomy (507) (N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, p. 402). Clearly, it is the Genesis and the Exodus quotations that interest us most as we enter Matthew’s worldview.

Our Gospel text continues Joseph’s role in Matthew’s prologue, now orchestrated in three “movements” each with a formula quotation to root it squarely in the continuing story of God’s people. Once again, Joseph’s sleep is interrupted by a divine messenger who makes it clear that he is to take the family to Egypt with great haste for Herod seeks to destroy this ‘new king’ (Matthew 2:13). Like Mary in Luke’s Gospel, Joseph continues to model obedience and follows the angel’s instructions exactly. They remain there until Herod’s death.

It is just this displacement that invites Matthew to recall the line from Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” If this prologue is unhistorical, the use of such formula quotations as these give greater theological significance to these events. The quotation from Hosea is there to let the reader know in no uncertain terms that Jesus is involved with a New Exodus, an Exodus that will result in a new community. Whether it is Pharaoh or Herod, God will provide not only a new Moses, but one who is greater than Moses.

This parallel is made even clearer in the ‘second movement’ of our pericope, where Herod follows Pharaoh in the killing of infants in the region of Bethlehem (Exodus 1: 22). Here, the formula quotation is from Jeremiah (31:15). Not only does Matthew reference Pharaoh’s infanticide here, he asks readers to recall the near destruction of God’s people (symbolized by “Mother Rachel,” who is reputed to have been buried near Bethlehem) as they gathered at Ramah, the staging area for deportation to Babylon (Jeremiah 40:1). Here Matthew clearly associates the killing of children with the near death of religious identity during this chapter in the history of God’s people.

Not only is Herod the Great associated with Pharaoh, his actions clearly put into question any possible claim to legitimacy. How can any ruler kill the “next generation” of his people and make any claim to kingship? Herod’s obsession with total control here seems to spill over into shocking violence! This certainly is a question that we hear today in regard to Syria and the Central African Republic. Perhaps we need also to question more deeply the plight of children in richer countries who suffer shocking increases in asthma, attention deficit disorder, hunger, and a basic lack of loving attention from family structures. Is this not little more than a more ‘palatable’ form of infanticide?

But even obsessed rulers die. Once more, Joseph’s sleep is troubled.  This time the message is welcome: “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” (Matthew 2:20, see also Exodus 4:19). But all is not rosy. Because Archelaus, the cruelest of the tetrarchs, rules their former home area, they must locate farther north, in the Galilean micro-village of Nazareth. Here Matthew stretches things a bit by inventing his own formula quotation: “So that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean’” (Matthew 2:23).

Matthew solves one important problem here: He relocates the Holy Family from the Davidic town of Bethlehem to Nazareth. But he also creates much thornier problems of understanding! Since these formula quotations have provided rich theological ore, what can we learn? Is this a word play where we are to understand that Jesus is neser, the branch from the “stump of Jesse?” (Isaiah 11:1-2).  In addition, might this also refer to this child who is Emmanuel being nazir, a “nazirite,” one consecrated to the LORD? (Numbers 6:2). Yes, the church has affirmed Jesus as “the branch from the stump of Jesse,” and Jesus is certainly consecrated at baptism, although the ascetic John the Baptist fits the “nazirite” model more closely.

Or, is there an additional meaning, as suggested by Luz? “The geographical statements of 2:19-23 anticipate the way of the Messiah of Israel to the Gentiles. This thesis is supported from another side: exactly in the Syrian area in which the Matthean community is living, “Nazorean” is the designation for a “Christian. Thus, an ecclesiological note is sounded: because Jesus comes to Nazareth in the Galilee of the Gentiles, he becomes a “Christian,” the teacher and Lord of the community that calls on him and preaches to the Gentiles” (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, p. 150).

If we follow this lead, we will see that even in the Matthean prologue, the call to “go to all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20) given by the one who is Emmanuel (“with you until the fulfillment of all things”) is powerfully present. This is why “heaven and nature sing!” And it is why parochial rulers, like Herod, obsessed with maintaining and expanding power, cannot tolerate this new birth of interconnected life. Their power depends on fragmentation, “divide and rule.”

Whether we argue that breaking down barriers that exclude non-Jews implies including all creatures in this new “genesis” or that the new community’s claim that this birth of the Holy One as part of creation engenders songs of praise from sun, moon, stars, wild animals, all cattle, creeping things, and flying birds and even kings of the earth (Psalm 148:3,10,11), the results certainly have one thing in common. This divine intrusion has the capacity to provoke those in power to maintain that domination with such tenacity that the results become increasingly destructive.

The motive is the same, whether it is a Holocaust of millions of Jews, the near elimination of Native Americans, or the use of military-based munitions to blow off mountaintops in Kentucky to mine the coal that continues not only to be a primary source of carbon pollution in the atmosphere, but also poisons the water near coal mining centers and kills miners with an alarming upsurge of black lung. Because they are born out of anxiety, power and control brook no opposition.

Because the one Matthew calls Emmanuel is “the teacher and Lord of the community which calls on him and preaches to the Gentiles” (Luz, op. cit.), this community is called not only to join in praise with all creation, but also to be involved in making sure that all creatures—including people—are free to engage in such praise. This is why 77-year-old Wendell Berry joined with Kentucky neighbors in 2011 to protest the destructive effects of mining companies by “sitting in” one weekend in offices of the Governor of Kentucky. They had concluded that the only way to force even a limited conversation with a government that does the bidding of large corporations was to go beyond normal, blocked forums of decision-making and participate in civil disobedience (conversation with Bill Moyers, available on BillMoyers.com).

To prevent the “slaughter of the innocents,” whether children in Newtown, Connecticut, polar bears in the Arctic, or the carbon pollution of a healthy atmosphere, the community gathered in the name of the one called Emmanuel needs greater courage and imagination. Perhaps we have to emulate Berry’s “mad farmer,” who says, “If it be my mission to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it” (“The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer” (Farming: A Handbook, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970, p. 44).

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                         tmundahl@gmail.com