The oft-cited adage about the Gospel and its proclamation, needing the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, seems to have particular relevance this Advent season.
The Bible in the one hand offers Matthew’s story of the magi from the East who visit Herod to ask how to find the recently born King of the Jews. In the other hand, this morning’s newspaper reports on the court challenges of almost half the states to the recently passed health care legislation, one of several tactics seeking to dismantle the plan to make health coverage available to millions of our uninsured.
Herod’s odd position of authority as “King of the Jews” under the thumb of Rome is threatened by these visitors, who foreshadow in Matthew’s narrative the coming of a new kingdom, ruled by one who is the true fulfillment of the covenant hope of Israel.
This new king will lift the covenant relationship to a new level, deepen understanding of the Torah and establish a new community against which the gates of hell will not prevail. It will be a different kind of kingdom from the empire that so dominated their world.
Those who are adamant in their efforts to repeal the health care law claim all manner of economic and logistical reasons for their opposition, but the reports of who is supporting their crusade to derail it suggest that those who benefit most from the present system would like very much for the new plan not to be implemented.
Other reports observe that much of the newly enacted health care plan is actually quite similar to proposals previously favored by its detractors, leading us to wonder if the objective is primarily to destroy an accomplishment of a president and a Democrat-controlled Congress. Indeed, some are reported to have said as much.
When Matthew’s Herod realized that the magi did not stop back by on their way home to report the whereabouts of this new king, he was enraged; and he did what threatened people often do. He sought to remove the threat to his power by having all the children under the age of 2 in and around Bethlehem killed.
He and his cronies could protect their little piece of the empire they valued so much. Matthew emphasizes his theme by drawing an obvious parallel to the response of another empire to a threat from the increase of a refugee labor population – a response that almost took the life of baby Moses.
Those seeking repeal of the first steps toward health care reform seem to value the benefits of an unreformed system more than the opportunity for greater justice in medical coverage. Preserving the power and profits of certain corporate entities will have the effect of leaving large numbers of people, including children under the age of 2, with inadequate coverage. Collateral damage, perhaps, in the effort to protect what is most important to the empire of profit and power.
In Matthew’s account, the magi, who went home another way, and Joseph, who took the child and his mother and fled to Egypt, saved Jesus’ life. The tragic deaths of many other children remain as Herod’s legacy and as a grim reminder that suffering at the hands of misguided power is a part of our world.
The good news of the season does not gloss over the darkness that seems to rule the world at times. It does, however, light a candle in that darkness, reminding us that where communities of people who have found the child of Bethlehem are willing to “go home by another route,” rather than returning to Herod, there is a possibility of embracing and living by the power of love, and thus prevailing ultimately over the forces that are driven by the love of power.
In that glimmer of light lies our hope.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).