We don’t normally think of babies as dangerous, and certainly not the baby Jesus, but that’s exactly how Matthew portrays him.
He’s a dangerous baby, a threat to the most powerful man on earth at the time – the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus.
True, Augustus is never mentioned in Matthew’s version of the birth narrative, but if you know what to look for, you can see that baby Jesus is challenging the legitimacy of Augustus’ kingship in Israel.
To begin with, Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogy that traces Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham, the father of Israel. The most significant aspect of this genealogy, however, is that it is a royal lineage.
Beginning with King David, every king of Judah is named, all the way to the Babylonian exile and the end of the monarchy, which ended with the deportation and death in Babylon of King Jeconiah.
Thus, Matthew is asserting that Jesus, not Augustus, comes from the long line of kings of Judah, and he does so by birth.
This is not insignificant because Augustus, the royal name of the man born Octavian, was the adopted son of Julius Caesar.
Could it be that among the Jews where the first-born son was always seen as the legitimate heir, Matthew was calling into question Augustus’ right to be king?
After the genealogy, Matthew simply reports that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, and quickly moves ahead almost two years to the arrival of star-diviners from the East, inquiring of King Herod where “the king of the Jews” could be found.
This sets Herod off on a paranoid search for the baby. When the Easterners slip off without reporting where they found the baby king, Herod goes on a murderous rampage of the young boys around Bethlehem.
Herod sat uneasy on his throne because most of the Jews did not view him as a legitimate king.
His family was from Idumea, the Roman province that included ancient Edom. Though he had converted to Judaism, he, like most Edomites, weren’t considered authentic Jews by the Pharisees of the day.
The overriding issue, however, is that he was a puppet king in the service of Augustus. He was a collaborator with the very regime that had conquered, occupied and brutalized the Jewish people.
To challenge his legitimacy as king was to challenge the legitimacy of the emperor who placed him on his “throne.”
Matthew’s birth narrative, therefore, is subversive literature, challenging the legitimacy of the Roman emperor and his turncoat “Jewish” king.
There is a new king in the land, Matthew declares, and even as a baby he is a threat that needs to be dealt with. He is a very dangerous baby.
And he grew to be a very dangerous man. Walking around proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand was a direct challenge to Caesar.
In many ways, Christians are called to be subversives in our culture. As much as many decry secular culture “taking the Christ out of Christmas,” perhaps the far greater harm is done by Christians themselves when they ignore – either by ignorance or by choice – the subversive nature of the Nativity, domesticating it into a sweet, heartwarming story of a baby in a manger surrounded by shepherds, donkeys and sheep.
This frees us from having to be subversive ourselves. We can enjoy a nice Christmas, thankful that our personal sins have been taken care of without concerning ourselves with the societal sins that continue to burden the “least of these” in our own culture.
We need to remember that Christ is the Greek form of the Hebrew word messiah, and for the Jews messiah meant king.
Anyone claiming to be a king anywhere in the Roman Empire was challenging Caesar’s claim to the throne. But by domesticating the baby Jesus, we have removed this threat.
Christ is no longer a word for the one challenging the guy on the throne; it’s simply a word for someone who takes away our personal sin. And when we do that, we are the ones taking the Christ out of Christmas.
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Md. This article first appeared on his blog, While My Muse Gently Weeps, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland.