Lovely Luke and Murderous Matthew

Sunday 29th December 2013
Year A, The First Sunday of Christmas
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Matthew 2:11-23

When I began my career in Journalism on a local evening paper we used to enjoy inventing spoof headlines of which my favourite was:




It felt a bit like that during the recent exequies for Nelson Mandela who was widely credited, through his reconciliatory initiative, of saving South Africa from a blood bath. He didn't. All that he did was to save white people from a blood bath. Between his release from prison in 1990 and his election as President in 1994, the white security forces killed approximately ten thousand black people.

It's been that kind of year, hasn't it, particularly since the media has begun to turn its attention on the mass slaughter in the Central African Republic which is only the latest manifestation of uncounted slaughter throughout the centre of Africa from the River Congo in the South to the Sahara Desert in the North, from the Atlantic coat of Nigera to Southern Sudan. I can't find a map big enough to show you so, when you go home, look it up.

Of course, the problem is, we shouldn't have to look it up; we should know and care as much about the mass slaughter in central Africa as we do about the sporadic but lurid serial murders by gunmen in the United States. How many black lives, I ask myself, is a white life worth? We might, at this point, turn to the plea of Shylock the Jew in the Merchant of Venice: "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?" I thought of this when the media produced what was for me, the most striking image of the year, a dead mother and her baby still connected by the umbelical chord found in the sunken boat just off Lampedusa.

At one level, we know it all in an intellectual sort of way but we don't seem to be able to cope with it at a pragmatic level. As a society we understand the plight of Mediterranean boat people but as a society we also rail against foreigners, undiscriminatingly, just because of who they are? I wonder, every time I go into a provincial hotel and am greeted by a smiling, articulate and helpful Polish graduate, what all the fuss is about; much better she, I think, than a surly, slovenly local. I know, there are surly poles and lovely locals but you get the picture. And this week we are to be overwhelmed by an infestation of illiterate, grasping, cheating  romanians and Bulgarians who are going to swamp our schools and our hospitals; and we, remember, are the seventh biggest economy in the world; and we can afford to pay our incompetent bankers millions of pounds a year. Do not Africans, and even Romanians bleed when they are pricked? Do they not laugh when they are tickled?

I pose these questions at this juncture because Matthew gives us a rather different angle on the birth and early life of Jesus from that which we read, and love, in Luke. Here are no shepherds nor angles announcing good news, followed by the presentation in the Temple and the gentle journey down to Nazareth, broken only by Jesus' escapade in the Temple somewhere around his 12th birthday. This is a story of high politics and intrigue, of deception and mass murder, of flight into exile in despised Egypt, Israel's traditional enemy.

And surely this is a story for our times. a petty dictator, sandwiched between his Roman superiors and a turbulent people, fears for his throne. He gets wind of an attempted coup and orders the slaughter of any possible rival. In his dynastic turmoil, infants are just collateral damage. Now look at the unspeakable horror of the way children are being treated in central Africa by petty princes in pursuit of power and wealth, and how the innocent flea to safety. Look at how they arrive, bedraggled, with nothing, throwing themselves on the mercy of hostile powers; look at how we count their lives cheap compared with our own; look at how they take any job offered to them, work hard, but are still insulted.

Now I know that trying to undertake peace keeping in central Africa will only be possible if we commit hundreds of thousands of soldiers and scores of military aircraft; and that just isn't going to happen; but the price we pay for not intervening  is trivial compared with the price that hundreds of thousand people pay in life, injury and exile.

So when we think about the Holy Family, perhaps we need a little less of lovely Luke and a little more of Murderous Matthew. Very few people in the whole wide world since the beginning of time have lived in the kind of pleasant land we live in. Very few people enjoy the freedom of speech - and even the abuse of that freedom - we enjoy. But this is not simply an exhortation to gratitude. Yes, we should be grateful; but, just as marriage takes hard work and too many people today are too lazy to sustain it, so does civilisation. Look how quickly it broke down in the former Yugoslavia; look how Libya became fragmented without its dictator? Look how all the countries of central Africa fare with weak governments. Look at how Christians are being persecuted all over the planet because they do not have governments that respect minorities.

Look. And look again. Look at our coarse commercialism. Look at our grasping. Listen to our complaints and our uncivil language. Listen to our strange mixture of resentment and supposed impotence.

But, look again. Look at Jesus Christ, the son of the most high God, almost murdered by a petty dictator, fleeing across the desert with his distracted, benighted parents into a strange and hostile land.