Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading from the Old Testament Micah. Here he speaks of the town of Bethlehem-Ephrathah and foretells how the ruler of Israel will come from there. Luke’s Gospel describes what is often called the Visitation. Here Mary traveled to Judah to visit the pregnant Elizabeth. When Mary greeted Elizabeth, her baby “leapt in her womb.” Elizabeth then said: “Blest are you among women and blest is the fruit of your womb.”
I’ve spoken about this before, but readings around the holidays (particularly Christmas) can become so numbingly familiar that we ignore what we read and picture the cartoons and movies we saw as children.
Let’s start with Bethlehem. Most of what we think of when we think about this village can be found in the hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” And we have some vague idea that Bethlehem can be found close to Jerusalem. That’s true: Bethlehem is about 6 miles (10 kilometers) south of Jerusalem, in what today we call the West Bank. It’s always been a small town but not an unimportant town. According to the Old Testament book of 1st Chronicles King David was born there and in our first reading we see that the Messiah will be born there.
From our perspective we can see why Jesus needed to be born in Bethlehem. It placed him in the line of David and it fulfilled the prophecy from Micah. I think most Jews of his day expected the Messiah to be born in Jerusalem, a city both large and important. Jerusalem was the center of both life and worship and every Passover it was flooded with Jews from all over the land. Looking at this from human logic, Jesus should have appeared in the Temple in the middle of Passover. But instead he appeared in a small suburb months from Passover.
And that leads us to our Gospel. As I’ve said, we read a great deal about location, and we read that Mary proceeded “in haste into the hill country to a town of Judah.” We don’t know exactly where this is, but most scholars think that it was somewhere south of Jerusalem, perhaps in Hebron.
But “where” isn’t as important as “who.” Mary and Elizabeth were both pregnant under unusual circumstances. Elizabeth was thought to be infertile and Mary was a virgin. And yet the unborn John (of Elizabeth) leapt in the presence of Jesus (of Mary). It’s almost as if John, before his birth, knew the role he would play in the life of Jesus.
Now let’s pull back from this scene and recognize the importance of this reading. Jews of the time yearned of the coming of the Messiah. They recognized that the days of King David were over and only God and his Messiah could deliver them back to their best days.
So where to they seek the Messiah? I’m fairly certain that the wealthy Jews who benefited from Roman rule assumed that the Messiah’s return would come from one of them. After all, wouldn’t a God who created the Universe choose the best and the brightest (and wealthiest)? We have to figure that the pharisees and the scribes assumed God was on their side and would choose the Messiah from among their ranks (as Rome had).
Nobody of their time would have recognized the Visitation. Seriously? Two women, pregnant under unusual circumstances, who are related? Rich Jews who awaited the Messiah could be forgiven for assuming that the Messiah would have dome from the best and richest families.
But God does not care about our expectations. Several years ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine. We were talking about the role of missionaries in the world. He suggested that most missionaries traveled to nations who didn’t welcome them and discouraged them. I told him that if I were a ruler of a nation who didn’t want missionaries I would welcome them and give them palaces to live in. By giving them wealth and status they would have no voice with the poor and displaced, and their status among the wealthy would only make them comfortable.
And their comfort, and need to remain comfortable, would make any messenger uncomfortable. I have to admit that if I had been chosen to save the world I would have chosen a much more beautiful part of the world. Like Hawaii.
A little later in Matthew’s Gospel we find that Herod learns of the birth of Jesus and plots to kill him. Obviously this wealthy Jew ingratiated himself to the Romans, and was seen by most Jews as a sellout. A Messiah born into poverty would be a Messiah he couldn’t control. It’s also not a stretch to think that Herod was jealous that the Messiah didn’t come from his family.
In reality, since Jesus was like us in all things but sin, he still would have brought glad tidings to the poor, he still would have called out the pharisees and scribes.
But there is something for us to pay attention to. Jesus’ teachings are clear on how we treat the poor. But even today we see something I’ve spoken about before: prosperity gospel. Several nationally known Christians regularly rake in obscene amounts of money by telling wealthy Christians that their wealth is a reward from God. They embody exactly the hopes Herod had for the Messiah.
There is a wonderful line making the rounds of social media: “If you’ve been blessed you should use your blessing to build a longer table, not a higher fence.”
I’m certain I don’t need to speak of the problems of thinking we are justified in building higher fences.