Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23
Epistle: Galatians 4:4-7
Lesson: Isaiah 63:7-14
Psalm: Psalm 111
CLB Commentary – Dr. Richard Erickson
Matthew “book-ends” his Gospel by emphasizing, both at the beginning and at the end, God’s presence with his people in the person of Jesus (1:23; 28:20). He then divides his story into three main parts. Matched texts at 4:17 and 16:21 suggest this division. Thus Matt 1:1–4:16 describes the preparation and lead-up to Jesus’ public ministry. Then 4:17–16:20 presents what Jesus “began to proclaim”: repentance in view of the arrival of the kingdom of God. It recounts selected events from his preaching, teaching, and healing ministry in Galilee, all of which demonstrate the kingdom’s “presence.” Finally, 16:21–28:20 describes the other side of the Messianic coin: rejection, execution, and resurrection. The text for this first Sunday after “Christmas,” then, comes from the first part of Matthew’s Gospel, the “preparation.”
There are several features of this stretch of text that are well worth noticing and thinking about as we prepare to preach or teach it.
- It comes hard on the heels of the magi’s story (only in Matthew), in which pagan astrologers upstage the Jerusalem elite in reverencing the Jewish Messiah. That theme is carried forward here, but with a twist.
- The three segments of the pericope (vv. 13-15, 16-18, 19-23) all end in a quotation from or allusion to Scripture (Hos 11:1; Jer 31:15; and perhaps Isa 11:1).
- Paying attention to the original settings of these quoted OT texts is important for understanding Matthew’s message. For example, Hosea 11 continues from v. 1 to define God’s “son” as Israel, and rebellious, stiff-necked Israel. How is it, then, that Jesus is that “son,” too?
- The first and third segments of this pericope (vv. 13-15 and 19-23) bear a stunning resemblance to each other, much of it identical in word and cadence. There can be little serious doubt that Matthew intended it to be this way, and for a reason.
- These matching paragraphs highlight the second segment wedged between them: the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents, putting sharp focus on that tragic event.
- Ironically, we never—or anyway, seldom—feature this event in Sunday school Christmas pageants, even though Matthew evidently felt that it was no less important in the “Christmas” story than the magi’s visit. In fact, previous editions of Lutheran lectionaries utterly omitted vv. 16-18, even when this larger text was on the list.
- There are very strong and obvious allusions to the Exodus story in this text:
o Parallels to Pharaoh and Moses cannot be missed.
o While the Infant escapes to, rather than from Egypt, Egypt does figure into the story. The flight from Herod and Israel to Egypt reflects the favorable, topsy-turvy light that shines on the pagan magi in vv. 1-12.
o Dreams of warning and virtually word-for-word allusions to the story of Moses (cf., among others, 2:13, 20 and Exod 4:19-20—especially noticeable in Greek, NT and LXX) reinforce the connection.
- While the infant Jesus escapes the death meant for him, leaving his Bethlehem neighbors to suffer in his place (contrast 1:21), he returns to share with them the same fate in the end, or almost the “end.” And as he says in 28:20, he will be “with them” to the end of the age.
- There is much more in this passage and its surrounding context that gives it deep irony and great power; those who take time with it and follow its OT connections will be richly rewarded.
- It raises expectations of a New Exodus under the “new Moses,” a righting of wrongs—of all wrongs, once and for all.
- The voice of Rachel, heard in Rama (v. 18) is echoed reassuringly in the voices of John in the desert (3:3) and God in the cloud (3:17).
In short, the message Matthew delivers here is woven right into the amazing way he has written his account of things. His narrative strategy carries a significant part of that message. We ignore, overlook, and/or dismiss it at the risk of ignoring, overlooking, and/or dismissing the message God has for us in it.