Isaiah 63: 7-9
The reading from Isaiah for the first Sunday after Christmas comes from the latter part of that text, a prophet whom some scholars identify as “Third Isaiah”, who was active some time after the return of the Hebrew people from their exile in Babylon. This was not, as might be expected, a time of unmitigated joy and harmony for the returnees: they found Jerusalem in ruins; the land was inhabited by a mixture of Hebrew remnants and foreign incomers; and they were still under the dominating rule of a foreign power, albeit the Persians and not the Babylonians who had destroyed Jerusalem. Squabbles and disagreements also quickly broke out among the people about their priorities: should they rebuild their homes, or the city walls, or the Temple? And beside which, how would they rebuild their economy, and be able to sustain themselves?
The passage from Isaiah addresses this “age of crisis” by calling on the people to remember the past acts of graciousness by God, and declaring that God is faithful to covenant. Whilst the present is indeed difficult, and there is no denying the obstacles faced by the people as they struggle to re-establish themselves, nonetheless, God is present within that difficulty and will not allow the people to be overwhelmed by their current circumstances. It is not distress and friction which will prevail, but God’s ever abundant love for the people.
Moreover, the prophet declares that it is not by some proxy – such as an angel or a messenger – but by God’s very presence that God will deliver the people from their distress. In other words, God will respond to the calamity that has befallen the people in a new way; not by sending someone to speak on God’s behalf, but by God coming among the people, speaking directly, as it were, to the people instead of via a third party. First there were the patriarchs and the Law; then there were the kings and the prophets; now God will act directly, decisively, and for all time.
Coming as it does on the first Sunday after Christmas, we must be careful not to read our retrospective knowledge into this passage and assume that when Isaiah talks about God’s own presence, he has in mind the specific figure of Jesus of Nazareth. A common misconception – even among Christians – is that prophecy is about “predicting the future”. But the horizon toward which Isaiah is looking is not the temporal horizon of “what will happen next” or “what will happen in the future”; rather, it is the eschatological horizon of God’s faithfulness outlasting human experience, so that it is God and not any given set of circumstances that has the last word about humankind. In recalling God’s past faithfulness, Isaiah is drawing the people’s attention to God’s providential presence through human history; and in doing so, is declaring the hopeful message that this presence will reveal itself in new and decisive ways that re-orient the life of the world to the life of God.
Ever since the “global financial crisis” of 2007/08 – which was itself a product of the criminality of those operating at the very apex of the global financial order – corporatist capitalism has been in an “age of crisis”. Financial markets may have more or less recovered their indices to the levels which existed at the time of the GFC – delivering huge windfall profits to the wealthy “market raiders” who were able to buy stocks immediately after markets “crashed” – but the global economy has remained locked in an ongoing pattern of sluggish growth, stagnating wages, plateauing consumption, and widening economic inequality as the owners of capital and the class of “super-managers” earn rates of return on their investments greater than the growth rate of entire economies. At the same time, the corporate sector remains enmeshed in scandal: wage theft is rampant, as is the corrupt influencing of political systems by corporate lobbyists. Likewise, the struggle for increased sales, profit, and market share drives unethical behaviour, resulting in financial institutions instigating systemic defrauding of an unsuspecting public.
In response to this “age of crisis”, some observers have declared that capitalism has entered its “end times”, a period of inevitable decline after which it will be replaced by some new form of economic organisation. Others are attempting to create a “new economy” regardless of what might happen in the wider economic world: through co-operative ventures and mutual organisations, many of which have their origins in Christian traditions ranging from monasticism to Quakerism. Meanwhile, mainstream economic analysts continue to pour over the data, arguing over which set of policy prescriptions will drag the global economy out of its slump and into fruitful operation once again.
In the face of this crisis, today’s reading from Isaiah might seem like “pie in the sky” wishful thinking, a set of platitudes designed to make us naively feel better about the state of things without actually doing anything to address the problem. But inasmuch as prophecy is not “about” predicting the future as it is about recalling our minds to relationship with God and God’s faithfulness to covenant, so this passage isn’t about offering false hope in times of economic distress. Rather, it is a call to return our thinking to “first principles”: to the relational purpose of work and economy that is ignored by corporatist capitalism’s drive for profit and economic “growth”. Work exists in order to give expression to the way in which human individuals and societies relate to one another; when work is deformed by constructions that dehumanise people and prioritise profit at the expense of dignity, those relations become oppressive and unjust.
But today’s reading from Isaiah calls upon us to remember a different kind of relation: a covenantal relation that reflects the faithfulness and love of God. God’s presence can be located in the world precisely in those times and places when our relations with one another reflect the relationship God seeks with humankind. And if, in the present time of crisis, God seems absent from human affairs, that is because human affairs have turned their attention away from God, away from relational forms that enhance human dignity. Those prophetic voices which speak against the abuses of corporatist capitalism, and which seek a realignment of economic constructions toward human dignity, in many cases express God’s “No!” to the oppressive and abusive structures built into modernity’s construction of work and economy. God’s apparent absence from a world in crisis is part of that “No!”. But the reality and promise of God’s decisive presence is part of God’s “Yes!” to humanity, God’s commitment to covenant and to unconditional love. It is that “Yes!” which today’s reading from Isaiah calls upon us to remember, and which it calls upon as to re-orient ourselves: not just in terms of private piety, but in the public world of work and economics as well.
Psalm 148 is an exuberant song of praise to God, in which God’s characteristics as the sovereign creator are glorified, and all the subjects of God’s creative project are called upon to render praise to their creator. This dimension of God-as-creator and creation praising God extends to the non-human, non-creaturely aspects of creation: even the weather in all its manifestations praises God and accords God glory as sovereign and Lord.
The Psalm begins in the heavens: all the beings of heaven, the angels and other heavenly denizens who often feature in the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s messengers give praise to God. Viewed from the standpoint of humanity, such beings are all powerful and terrifying; yet, they too acknowledge God’s sovereignty and give praise to God. By beginning in the heavens, the Psalmist immediately alerts us to the all-encompassing rule of God: there are no powers, no authorities which lie beyond God’s Kingdom.
The all-extensive nature of God’s reign is emphasised in verses 3-6. The celestial bodies that are observable to humans in the night sky, and which seem so mysterious and almost as though they were powers in their own right (hence giving rise to pseudo-sciences such as astrology, from which the modern science of astronomy emerged), are nonetheless subject to God’s rule. God created the cosmos and all its wonders, and defined the principles by which the universe operates. The more humans discover about these principles, the more astonished we are by their complexity and counter-intuitive nature; yet all these were set in train by the overflowing abundance of God’s creative will.
Verses 7-10 concern themselves with the earthly creation. All things on our planet, from the mysterious and terrifying creatures that inhabit the unknown depths of the ocean, to the smallest bug and beetle on land, are under the sway of God’s majesty. Likewise the elements themselves, the forces that both shape the land and drive the weather. All these things have been ordained by God’s creative purpose.
Verses 11-14 conclude with human society and a command to give honour and glory to God. From kings to commoners, from young to old, both men and women; all are called to give praise to God as the One who exists above all other forces and powers, and to whom all authority is subject. This includes the “authority” which we imagine derives from human constructions of power and legitimacy: the One who brought all things into being relativises and ultimately overrules every other claim to power and jurisdiction.
But where God’s sovereignty differs from the rule of kings and tyrants is that it exists for the sake of the people, for the sake of those with whom God wishes to be in relationship. Giving praise to God is not an act of submissive fear, but a freely given expression of joy and wonder at the invitation into relationship which God accords to humanity. God’s loving abundance is such that we are freed to give praise, knowing that it will be received, not as an act of fear-filled obeisance, but as a spontaneous, liberated acclamation that responds of its own accord to the freely given, first-given grace of God.
Psalm 148 is a creation narrative, one of many that are found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet it is not simply a list of the many facets of creation; it is an affirmation both of the origin of creation in God-as-creator and a call for creation to praise God in recognition of God’s gracious sovereignty. In so doing, it spells out the relationship between God and creation, as well as the relationship between the various actors within creation itself. Beginning in the heavenly realm, moving through the wonders of the cosmos, and concluding with earth, Psalm 148 establishes not a hierarchy but an interconnected web of relationships, all of which have God as their centre. And it is when the actors of creation align themselves with God that the relationships between those actors functions in the affirming, liberating manner that lies at the heart of God’s creative purpose. Praise, in this context, is not an act of submission but of alignment; and it is a reminder that, through worship, we align ourselves with God, with one another, and with the whole of creation.
There can be no disputing the fact that the industrialisation of the global economy has brought with it vast improvements in human material well-being and social ordering. Generally speaking, people live longer, enjoy better health, have access to better quality food, housing, and clothing, and participate in social discourse in a way that would have been inconceivable even to our grandparents – and they, in their turn, were substantially better off than their grandparents.
Yet despite all the apparent gains in human well-being that have come with industrialisation, we are now grappling with the reality that those improvements have come at a cost which not only offset the benefits, but have in fact enslaved humanity in new and destructive ways. These include:
- Widespread ecological devastation through deforestation, habitat destruction, pollution, mass extinctions, the wastefulness of over production and over consumption, and the emerging impacts of global warming on weather systems and rising sea levels
- Gross inequalities in the distribution of economic and social benefits, in which the wealthiest 10% of the human population control half the world’s wealth, consume the vast bulk of the world’s resources, and enjoy the best living standards and life expectancies, all to the detriment of the rest of the world’s human population
- The extension of the social and political control of economic elites over the rest of humanity through the corruption of the political process, control of media resources, and the furtherance of corporate influence over every sphere of human existence, including through the cult of work.
The net result is that while many of the benefits of industrialisation are apparent, they are also grossly skewed in terms of their distribution and how they are controlled and managed, and come with an impact on the non-human environment of such magnitude that it now threatens humanity’s very existence. All this inequality and destructiveness is essentially the result of the egocentric nature of industrialisation as it has occurred in modernity: the myth of the all-powerful, autonomous individual, the cults of achievement and celebrity by which this myth is accompanied, and the dehumanising character of modernity’s construction of work and economy have combined to destroy the relational basis of human activity. Everyone, whether consciously or otherwise, is “in it for themselves”, unaware of the impact of their actions on others and on the wider ecology.
In other words, what humanity has constructed is an idolatrous system in which the life of the world is not aligned to God and exists relationally to other parts of creation, but is based instead upon a hierarchical system in which humanity has inserted itself at the top. And even within that hierarchy there are “mini-hierarchies”, as the gross inequalities in social, economic, and political power reveal. In this scheme, the non-human ecology exists, not as the basis upon which human life exists, but merely as a “resource” to be relentlessly exploited to the point of exhaustion. That we are cutting away the very foundations of human sustainability is subordinated to the mantra of endless economic “growth”. Prophetic voices are ignored or ridiculed. The justice claims of the poor, the powerless, of future generations, and of the environment itself are ignored or ridiculed. The myth of the self-reliant individual prevails; the myth of waged labour as the primary indicator of human worth prevails.
We are all of us aware of the impacts of this hierarchy – individually, socially, and ecologically. And yet we are all caught up in the idea that “nothing can be done”, that the ordering of the world as manifested in modernity is both inevitable and necessary. Yet Psalm 148 reminds us that this is not the case at all: it reminds us that the very sociability of human nature provides that human beings are, in fact, able to live in relationship with one another and with the non-human ecology. No-one pretends that such a relational existence is necessarily easy, that it doesn’t involve certain sacrifices in material and political terms (which, in truth, are sacrifices of the ego), or that it would be some kind of utopian existence in which conflict never occurs. A relationship, by definition, involves tensions between different points of view and priorities. But it also never asserts the primacy of one perspective or set of needs over all others.
Psalm 148 reminds us that a truly relational existence is only possible when human life is oriented toward God and not toward its own ego demands. The praise of God is not submission (although it is surrender of the ego) precisely because God seeks covenantal co-relationship, not hierarchical rule. And while it is possible for the very idea of God to be subverted to egocentric imperatives – as, for example, is manifested in those theologies of work that equate the spirit of capitalism with the spirit of Christianity – nonetheless, it is only by being in relationship with God that we can properly exist in covenant with others, and with the non-human ecology. In such a scheme all aspects of creation are understood as being in relationship, rather than existing for the purposes of the other; and relationship always concedes the inherent dignity of the other as a consequence of our shared origin in God’s creative abundance.
Psalm 148 points the way toward a new economy and toward a new ecology; one that is not founded on the rule of self-interest and advantage, but upon a recognition of the mutual inter-dependence of all things – an inter-dependence that ultimately springs, not just from an understanding of what upholds our existential survival, but from our need for life oriented toward the life of God.
Hebrews 2: 10-18
The Letter to the Hebrews was once thought to have been composed by the apostle Paul; however, the veracity of this attribution was doubted even in the period of the early church, and some modern scholars are now of the view that it may have been composed by one of Paul’s followers, imitating his style even where differences between Hebrews and canonical Pauline texts are discernible. Scholarly consensus regards the text as a defence of the Christian proclamation of Christ as the Messiah at a time when some Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, facing persecution, were contemplating a return to traditional Judaism.
Today’s passage assigns to Jesus one of the many attributions for which Hebrews is notable: Jesus is a pioneer. Specifically, Jesus is a pioneer in suffering. This suffering was the suffering of injustice that all people experience through the course of their lives, precisely because Jesus was the one through whom God entered human life and shared human experience. God the creator became part of creation in order to stand in solidarity with that creation and claim its realities for God. Thus, Jesus is a “pioneer” in the sense that his suffering is the precursor of the suffering experienced by the Jewish Christian community: as Jesus was persecuted for proclaiming God’s love for the world, they in their turn are persecuted for proclaiming Christ as God’s decisive act of love.
But this pioneering characteristic is more than just a matter of trailblazing: it is also an act of solidarity. Even as, through Jesus, God stands with suffering humanity, so Jesus also stands with those who suffer on behalf of the Gospel. Jesus’ very humanity enables us to become sisters and brothers to Christ; and, through Christ, recipients of the same covenant promise made to the Hebrew people. In other words, the Incarnation was enacted on behalf of all peoples so that all peoples might be inheritors of the promises made to Abraham. And that promise is nothing less than the overcoming of all the forces and powers that degrade and dehumanise, and which hold us in captivity to fear and death.
And it is one the basis of this solidarity that this passage also assigns to Jesus another characteristic: that of high priest. In ancient Judaism, the high priest was a member of the priestly class as ordained by the Mosaic Law: but that class was itself drawn from the Chosen People, the community of faith with whom God had entered into covenant. One of the functions of the high priest was thus to act as a mediator between God and the people; to, as one of the people, represent the people to God.
Jesus’ own high priesthood is both similar and yet radically different. Jesus is one of the people, the brother and sister to suffering humanity who shares with them all that it means to be human. But Jesus is also the Son of God, the One who is both of God and who is God. Thus, Jesus as high priest, both represents the people to God and represents God to the people. In Jesus, God and humanity occupy the same space, and are brought together in reconciling communion.
Today’s passage from Hebrews outlines a theology of Christ (“Christology”) that exhorts the suffering community of Jewish Christians to understand their suffering not as meaningless injustice, but as deeply sacred space inhabited by the reality of God. This does not sanitise or minimise the implications of that experience; rather, it underscores the depth of God’s solidarity with humankind in and through the suffering of Jesus. God knows what it is to suffer as a consequence of human oppression and faithlessness; but God remains faithful to covenant and committed to loving relationship with humanity. The community to whom Hebrews is written are likewise urged to remain faithful through their experience of suffering, for it is through the faithfulness of God in Christ that the suffering of injustice is overturned, and the power of death and sin overcome.
Nearly every human culture and society has its “pioneer” stories that also serve as a kind of origin narrative: stories that follow the “where-we-came-from-and-where-we-went-to” arc to explain a people’s origins, where they migrated to, and why they ended up in their new “homeland”. Crucially, such stories also often serve as the moral vindicator for such movements, and for the consequent displacement of other people which such movements entail. Whether they appeal to divine promise or “manifest destiny”, these “pioneer stories” prioritise the claims of the migrating people over the claims of the settled people, often leaving little, if any, thought for what happens to those who become displaced in the aftermath.
It is not for nothing that Abraham gets mentioned in today’s reading from Hebrews. Abraham is the first “pioneer”, the one who left his settled life in Mesopotamia to go wandering as an act of faith, and who eventually settled in the land that had been promised to him by God. In doing so, he had to negotiate his arrival and settlement with the people who were already living there; but his very arrival is a precursor to the subsequent movement of the Hebrew peoples into the “Promised Land” after the exodus from Egypt. Abraham’s “prior presence” and the divine promise written into that presence will be the justification for the armed conquest of what was then called Canaan, and the displacement/assimilation of its peoples by the incomers.
This is a pattern that has been repeated throughout human history; and it is a pattern of which we are especially conscious in modern times, in light of the European colonisation of Africa and the Americas. The trope of bringing “civilisation” to the indigenous peoples of other continents was often just a thin justification for conquest and appropriation. In the process, the indigenous cultures of the colonised lands were critically damaged (where they were not actually destroyed), along with countless numbers of indigenous peoples killed by European diseases to which they had no immunity, or as a consequence of massacres that were often labelled “police actions”.
The situation in Australia was no different. The European colonisation of Australia was marked by dispossession, cultural destruction, and death for the indigenous peoples of this continent. Those who survived the process of colonisation were reduced to social and economic marginality, written off as the remnants of an outmoded culture whose inevitable fate was extinction. Subsequent immigration from other parts of the world in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries has only reinforced the dispossession of indigenous Australians. Yet the resilience of indigenous cultures in Australia and elsewhere, and their continued advocacy for justice, attests both to the dignity and veracity of indigenous culture and people, as well as to the falsity and injustice that lies at the heart of many “pioneer stories”.
The “pioneer stories” that mask and sanitise the destructiveness of colonisation are reflected in the “pioneer stories” that mask the destructiveness of modernity’s construction of work and economy. One of the ways in which the cult of achievement glorifies and sanitises the myth of individual autonomy is in its “pioneer stories”: the tales of inventors, technologists, capitalists, scientists and others whose “determination” and “will to succeed” reshapes entire social and economic systems. From the implementation of “scientific” work management to the invention of the smartphone, modernity’s construction of work and economy has become a pantheon of praise to these “inspiring” individuals and “exemplars”.
But what these “pioneer stories” often cover over is the fact that the “great individuals” whom they praise simply didn’t create their “greatness” out of nothing: often they inherited the work or resources bequeathed to them by others, or else were the beneficiaries of the work of colleagues. Often, these others were carefully left unmentioned, or nudged aside at a strategically important moment, or the record “corrected” to minimise their contribution. The individuals who are the subjects of the laudatory tales of modernity were often not “pioneers” but collaborators with others whose contributions are dismissed or minimised in order to support the myth of the heroic individual.
The other reality which modernity’s “pioneer stories” cover over is the reality of economic migration. Entire human populations have moved throughout history in order to improve their economic circumstances, whether in search of better grazing pastures, agricultural lands, trading facilities, or access to material wealth. After the Industrial Revolution and the conquest of the “New World” by the West, this migration has often taken the form of movement from rural areas to the cities, from less developed to more developed nations. However, in the past 40 years, with the advent of the “neoliberal ascendancy” and the globalisation of the world economy along corporatist capitalist lines, an inversion has taken place: while people still move in search of better economic opportunities, now economic actors also move in order to seek better commercial opportunity.
These economic actors are often multinational corporations who use their vast reserves of wealth to seek out conditions of production that improve their profitability and maximise their advantage over competitors. They move from country to country seeking the jurisdiction that will provide cheaper, less regulated labour sources, that will offer richer tax incentives, or which will ensure their activities are not subject to public scrutiny and accountability. In doing so, they often use their economic scale to “leverage” advantageous conditions from poor countries desperate for foreign exchange and economic growth. These economic actors are “pioneers” in the sense that they go “exploring”: but like the colonisers of old, what they are looking for are sources of exploitation, regardless of the human cost levied on those whom they encounter.
At the same time, “economic refugees” have become increasingly vilified as “parasites” and “opportunists” who are looking to “steal jobs” and “live off” the economic privilege of developed nations. In an ironic inversion of the process of colonisation, settled peoples are reacting against migration by constructing legal, political, and social barriers to migration. Whether it’s walls along the Mexican-American border or detention camps in the south Pacific, settled peoples are seeking to entrench the advantage accorded to them by the historical process of colonisation, resisting both the justice claims of refugees and the ongoing claims of indigenous peoples.
Thus it is that modernity’s myth of the autonomous individual, embodied in its construction of work and economy, operates hand in glove with the historical process of colonialism and the modern inversion that seeks to entrench the privileges of colonisation.
Today’s reading from Hebrews, however, points to a model of pioneering that is concerned with solidarity and not exploitation. This is the solidarity of God in Christ who, instead of operating from a position of divine privilege that exploits the weakness of humanity, instead surrenders that privilege and makes itself vulnerable to human injustice and oppression. Thus God enters fully into the reality of what it means to be human, making every person and their experience of suffering the sister and brother of Christ – our fraternal relationship with God is founded on our shared humanity with Jesus and God’s shared experience with humankind.
But Jesus as high priest also represents God to humanity, God’s continuous call into covenantal relationship that orients the life of the world to God and gives expression to that orientation through our dealings with one another. Thus we are repeatedly called to “explore” what it means to be in relationship with one another, instead of “exploring” what it is we can get from one another or use against each other to our own advantage. Jesus, who is both “pioneer” and “high priest”, invites us into a discipleship in which we explore with Jesus our relationship with God and with one another; and in which we recognise those modes of relationality that are exploitative and oppressive, turning back (“repenting”) instead toward covenantal co-existence. This is the co-existence of solidarity, of shared experience and shared humanity, standing with others in their suffering in order to affirm human dignity and bring to light new modes of being.
Matthew 2: 13-23
Today’s passage from The Gospel According to Matthew is deliberately framed in such a way as to evoke remembrance of the story of the flight of the ancient Israelites into Egypt, and their subsequent return to the Promised Land. This is in keeping with the view that Matthew was largely directed at an audience of Jewish Christians; by tying the story of Jesus to the sacred history of Israel, the author of Matthew was making the point that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah who came in fulfilment of covenant. This is reinforced by the repeated references to the prophetic tradition, in which the author of Matthew argues that the events of Jesus’ life match the promises made in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus represents fulfilment of the unbroken line of covenantal relationship articulated in the promise to Abraham, established in the Law, and spoken of by the prophets.
The passage begins with a dream-warning to Joseph that he needs to take action to remove his family from danger. This follows on from earlier dreams in which Joseph was assured that the child Mary was to bear was both his own as a “son of David” as well as the “Son of God” who would fulfil covenant. Here again we see displayed this aspect of Joseph’s “righteousness”: his openness to God’s presence in human life, and his preparedness to act as a consequence. But Joseph being a “son of David” also places this situation in the context of the sacred history of Israel: for like Abraham, Joseph was faced with the dilemma of uprooting his family from its settled life, cutting off the ties of community and kinship, in order to move to a foreign land where they would be strangers inhabiting the margins of society. Moreover, that land would be Egypt, the land where Joseph the son of Jacob had been a slave, and which had more than once exercised imperial control over Israel.
The scene then shifts to another centre of power: to King Herod. The prophesy of a child being born who would replace the king was a familiar one in the ancient world and is an old trope in folklore and legend. It’s presence here in Matthew is a reminder of the richness of ancient culture, and the interplay between the religious imagination and the sources of story-telling in the wider world. But it is also a reminder of the nature of tyrannical power: paranoid, obsessive, dangerous. Especially when that power is exercised on behalf of an even greater power, when the tyrant is the puppet or proxy of an even mightier tyrant. Herod would have been familiar with such rumours and stories: and he would have been well aware of their power to not only threaten his own position, but bring down upon him the wrath of his Roman imperial overlords if he failed to keep the peace. So Herod would have regarded any stories swirling around in his own lifetime as a double threat: both to his own power, and to the confidence he held in the eyes of the Romans.
Whether or not the “massacre of the infants” took place in the manner described in Matthew is unclear. Some ancient sources do report a killing of children; but whether this was during Herod’s reign, or even at his instigation, is uncertain. Likewise, the location for this event is equally obscure. It is highly unlikely, however, that the author of Matthew would have inserted an event to which his audience could not have related; so even if the event as stated related to rumours that were widely accepted as true at the time, or to an event which occurred in another time or place, the point is that the audience would have been able to relate to the experience of tyrannical rule – especially given that what is known with certainty is that Herod murdered three of his own sons. Moreover, in keeping with Matthew’s tying of the life of Jesus into the sacred history of Israel, the “massacre” of the infants mirrors the event where Pharaoh orders his people to kill the Israelite children (Exodus 1:22) – so once more, the author of Matthew is evoking scriptural memory, as well as the experience of dictatorial rule.
The passage concludes with another dream event that mirrors or “bookends” the dream-event that opens today’s reading. Joseph is informed in a dream that Herod has died and that it is safe to return. However, there isn’t quite a “happily ever after” conclusion to this story: upon returning to Judea, Joseph discovers that one of Herod’s surviving sons is ruling in his stead. Concerned that tyrants and their offspring tend to have long memories, and that this might have unpleasant consequences for Joseph and his family, he moves them once again to the northern district of Galilee and the town of Nazareth. There may have also been economic considerations behind this decision: the towns around the Sea of Galilee were undergoing a period of expansion and general prosperity, meaning the likelihood of steady work for a tradesman like Joseph was highly likely. Regardless, the point is clear: Joseph and his family are displaced peoples, buffeted by the forces of despotic power and possibly economic necessity.
Today’s reading from Matthew reminds us of the extent to which God, in the person of Jesus as well as in the realities of Joseph and Mary, entered into the fullness of human vulnerability and suffering. And in the same way, the passage, which is embedded in the sacred history of Israel, in the wanderings of Abraham and Joseph ben Jacob, and in the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt and their eventual emergence into the Promised Land, also acts as a pre-figuring of Jesus’ eventual fate. The same powers of oppressive rule which threaten his parents will eventually claim Jesus’ life. And the ambiguity of Joseph’s family’s return also echoes the ambiguity of the return of the Israelites to the Promised Land, and their occupation of that land at the expense of the people already settled there. Loose endings and unintended consequences are the norm not the exception; from what goes before, new things and new realities emerge. Nothing is ever ended or settled. And so the new realities that come with the Cross and the Resurrection are also foreshadowed in this reading, because Jesus’ death ended nothing – and, indeed, set in train a whole new set of possibilities and ways of being.
The experience of enforced migration and displacement is a common one in the world. Despite modernity’s vaunted “progress”, many countries are ruled by oppressive regimes, which are themselves propped up in power by “democratic” states for purposes of cynical international politics. In other nations, civil war or tension between ethnic groups over power or scarce resources contributes to conflict that forces entire communities to seek safe haven elsewhere. And when refugees arrive in other countries, they are often viewed with mistrust and suspicion, their plight manipulated by local politicians for domestic political purposes. Thousands upon thousands of refugees spends years or decades in transit camps amid conditions of hardship and squalor; even the fortunate few who are resettled in “safe” communities face discrimination, marginalisation, and the insecurity of potential deportation.
Modernity’s construction of work and economy has likewise created economically insecure populations who are often forced to migrate long distances in order to find “safety”. As multinational corporations move their operations around the globe looking for ever cheaper labour forces, or as automation becomes even more widespread, large numbers of people are displaced as they seek the economic security that comes from employment. The casualisation of the workforce has propelled many people into insecure, short-term, low-wage employment; while the emergence of the so-called “gig economy” has effectively forced many other to become “contractors” who are unable to access many of the benefits and entitlements available to traditionally employed persons. Moreover, as developed economies “mature” and move from manufacturing/production-oriented economies to so-called “information economies” essentially based on the commoditisation of data, wages stagnate as “productivity” becomes ever more difficult to measure, and wealth comes not from savings but from investment returns – an avenue that is largely open only to the owners of capital and the class of exorbitantly remunerated “super managers”.
Added to these forms of oppressive power are the forms of corporate corruption that are recurring with ever greater frequency as the ideology of deregulation and “small government” gives bad corporate actors carte blanche to exploit their workforces and defraud the public, knowing there is little chance they will ever be caught or punished for their actions. The culture of profit-generation and market-share capture built into the ethos of corporate capitalism exacerbates the situation, prioritising and rewarding unethical and illegal behaviour in the pursuit of “returns”. Wage theft, corruption of the political process, tax avoidance, abuse of public trust – all these manifestations of corporate corruption are endemic to modernity’s construction of work and economy.
The refugees produced by this corruption are those who have to move between cities, or states, or even countries in order to find secure work. They are the ones who have to work two or three low-wage, insecure jobs just to enable a basic standard of living for themselves and their families. They are the ones who are forced into a cut-throat competition with thousands of other “contractors” in the “gig economy”, making themselves available for ever longer hours at basic rates of pay just to capture a small slice of the available income. They are the ones who, complying with every demand of the “information economy” to “upskill” or “retrain” then find the labour market saturated with identical others, meaning their chances of meaningful employment are just as bad as previously. They are the future generations who, subjected to the ideology of “vocational education”, find themselves hostage to the whims of culture, politics, and economy, precisely because what their “education” hasn’t taught them to do is think for themselves and analyse the claims made by modernity.
Refugees, displacement, and insecurity are not just the products of war or civil strife. They are the inevitable result of modernity’ construction of work and economy, and its commodification of both the human worker and the work which they perform. The structures of oppressive and unjust power which harms workers also has the tendency to pathologize the suffering of those who are harmed by work, recasting the injustice which caused that harm either as a psychological “weakness” or as the product of an “unco-operative” personality. This transfers the “burden of responsibility” from the corporate sector onto the individual: instead of corporations being made accountable for creating harm, employees are made responsible for either “getting help” or “improving their performance”. Those who are unable to meet this burden are then marginalised, either through the stigmatisation that accompanies the status of “injured worker” or else through subjection to punitive “behavioural management” systems.
Today’s reading from The Gospel According to Matthew is not just an account of a “refugee family” who had to take flight in the face of a perceived threat, and who then return to an uncertain future. It is an illustration of the ways in which the structures of unjust power harms and degrades people, severing them from their connections to kin and community, and forcing them into the precariousness of a displaced existence. It is a description of the ways in which oppressive power destroys human relationships, in the process destroying the covenantal co-existence into which human life is called. The presence of Jesus and his family in the midst of this process of disconnection reminds us of God’s solidarity with those who suffer as a consequence of tyranny; but it also alerts us to the deeper connection with God which all humanity shares. The harm caused by injustice is not just the impacts which it has on those who are on the “receiving end” of that harm; it is also on the severance of connection – between ourselves and others and God – which this injustice creates.
But just as the presence of God in suffering alerts us to the possibility of reconnection through repentance and reconciliation, so the harm caused by modernity’s construction of work and economy reminds us of the possibilities for reconnection available through remembering the relational dimensions of work. The human tendency for sociability, at present harnessed by the forces of corporatist capitalism for its own purposes, can actually be the avenue for reminding us that one of the functions of work is to facility solidarity and relationality between individual humans and communities. The ideology of competition which corrupts human existence and which pitches people into harmful conflict points to the reality that enmity and division are not the normative condition of humankind – the harm caused to individuals and communities by this ideology is the harm of separation and dissociation. The reality that not all relationships are fruitful, and that individuals are not necessarily going to form lasting bonds with every other individual is not a justification for the ideology of competition; rather, it points toward the very need to remember our relational ties with one another, precisely because it is through doing so that we remember our shared humanity. Thus, even when people are unable to form bonds of friendship and association, the call to covenantal co-existence recalls our shared human reality and militates against depersonalisation and the kind of “othering” that justifies vilification and conflict.