In today’s text we encounter the horror of the slaughter of innocent children in the town of Bethlehem at the hands of King Herod the Great (73 BC – 4 BC). Some historians have questioned whether or not Herod would have done such a thing, as there are no other records of such an attack. It was certainly within his character to do it; Herod had two of his own sons and his wife executed when he thought that they were plotting to take over his throne. It prompted his good friend Caesar Augustus to say, “It would be better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”
Bethlehem was a very small village at the time Jesus was born there. It would have had less than three hundred inhabitants, and perhaps only twelve to fifteen male children under the age of two. The deaths of so few would probably not have been known or recorded by historians at the time. Such an attack would have been only significant to the families in Bethlehem. Some ancient Church writers put the numbers of the slaughtered in the tens of thousands, which were certainly inflated numbers. Regardless of the number, we are always horrified when children are intentionally targeted for destruction.
On April 19, 1995 the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was destroyed by a bomb, which killed 168 people and injured more than 680 others. Among the dead were 19 children who were in a daycare center inside the building. Timothy McVeigh, who was found guilty of building and detonating the bomb, knew that the children were present when he selected the building as his target. McVeigh said that the deaths of the children were justified because children had died during the government siege of the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas. McVeigh believed that the children were legitimate targets in his war against the government.
There is evil in this world that does not care about the lives of children, or any other innocent people. Blind hatred and evil will not bat an eye at the destruction of innocent lives in war, tribal genocide or in acts of terrorism. How ironic it is that in Holy Scripture when we read this story it is set right in the midst of Christmas, when we are singing about “peace on earth and good will among people.” But that is the way our world really is. It is a world filled with injustice, hatred, evil despots and murdering greed. Every year millions of innocent people are killed all over the world, as evil seeks its own way. We all ask, “Why does this happen?” But there is no answer.
The evil in this world is indeed powerful, and that is why Christ Jesus came to us as he did. God entered our world as the child of peasants, and was poor his entire life. He and his family were subject to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as are all human beings. They were subject to the whims and outrages of tyrants and despots; that is how they ended up in Bethlehem. Throughout his ministry and in his teachings, Jesus made it clear that he sides with the poor and the innocent who suffer in this world. He referred to them as “the least of these my brethren.”
Like Jesus, you and I are called to side with the poor, the innocent and those who suffer in this world. We are to stand against the evil and care for its victims. We are to love and take care of “the least of these his brethren.” We are also to love and care for the children of the world, and to take care of the refugees.
In a Christmas sermon the great protestant reformer, Martin Luther said, “So many people see Jesus in the manger and they say, ‘If I had been there I would have cared for him and loved him. I would have fed him and changed his diapers.’ Well of course you would, because you know who he turned out to be. If you want to do this for Jesus, do it for those who need your help now.”
The print is titled, “The Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents” by Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883), French realist illustrator and painter.