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We Need To Hear The Cry

A sermon on Matt. 2:13-23

(for an audio recording of this sermon, click here)

So, I have a question. Maybe it has occurred to you as well:

Why do we need to hear this story?!

It is a story of terror and violence. A story of only one precious family making it across the border to safety. A story of a power-mad, fear-driven despot ordering the murder of innocent babies. A story of inconsolable suffering.

What are we supposed to do with a story like this at the end of the Christmas season? In the story of Christ’s birth, we have just witnessed the mystery and the glory of God’s vulnerability in Jesus. But how are we supposed to embrace that vulnerability when we are confronted with this fear-filled story that reminds us of what vulnerability means in a world controlled by violence and the will to power?

Especially this week, when global events might be calling us into fear and making us uncomfortably aware of our own vulnerability. How are we supposed to believe in the goodness of vulnerability? How are we supposed to think that vulnerability is anything other than something to fear?

In seeking an answer to those questions, I think we need to ask why Matthew decided to tell us this story. None of the other gospel writers include it in their accounts of the life of Jesus. But Matthew does more than just include it. He makes it the pinnacle of Christ’s origin story – the crisis point that sets the trajectory for Jesus’s whole life as a target for a violent empire that will stop at nothing to end the threat to power that Jesus brings.

As we spend the next eleven months with the Gospel of Matthew, we will have plenty of chances to wrestle with the gospel-shaping consequences of this violence-driven story. But the story is not ONLY important because of how it shapes what comes after. The story itself is important. The moment itself needs to be heard.

And we can recognize that in the way that Matthew pauses in his story telling to ask us to listen. To listen to the voice “heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentations. Rachel weeping for her children;” to listen to the voice that “refused to be consoled, because (her children) are no more.” (Matthew 2:18; Jeremiah 31:15) Matthew makes us listen to the wailing of an inconsolable mother.

In his insightful story-teller’s commentary on Matthew’s gospel, Richard Swanson focuses in on this story, and on this cry, and he makes the point that our English translations have actually softened the sound of Rachel’s weeping. A better translation from the Greek would be “shrieking.”[1]

Rachel is shrieking. She is screaming out her pain and anguish.

This personification of the mother of Israel that the prophet Jeremiah called forth to protest and lament the cataclysmic exile of his people;

this stand-in for of the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem who almost certainly fell by the same swords that struck down the children they would have rushed to defend;

this devastated mother is shrieking. Her voice is tearing through the silence that follows the violence, demanding to be heard.

Matthew demands that we hear her. Why? Because, as Richard Swanson points out, “Herod is not the first to kill simply because he could. He will not be the last.”[2] We need to listen to Rachel’s cry precisely because it is not unique. It is heard again, and again, and again throughout human history. It is a cry to which ANY system of faith MUST respond if it is to be relevant to the deepest human pain.

In Swanson’s commentary, he calls up some of the stories of violence and genocide from the last century to help us recognize what we confront in this shriek.

He evokes the shadow of Auschwitz, and the reflections of American servicemen who witnessed the horrors of the war.

He tells the story of Richard Fiske, a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, who tells his survivor’s story to visitors to the US memorial.

And he focuses, in particular, on stories of the Rwandan genocide that took at least a half million lives in just a few months in 1994.

He reflects on all of these stories in the context of the shriek that we hear in the second chapter of Matthew. Because the pain of these stories is the shriek that continues to reverberate in our lifetimes… in our world.

At least one answer to the question of why we have to hear this story is that we need to hear Rachel’s wail. But Swanson argues that “the question really is: What response must we make?”[3] Because a cry like the cry of Rachel demands a response.

But what that response is to be is a difficult question, especially for people of faith. Because the instinctive response to that kind of cry is usually a response of revenge.

We all know that instinct. We hear it on the news, and we see it in the plotline of countless blockbuster action movies. Violence against innocents – or even against non-innocents so long as we identify with them – draws from the human heart a self-righteous fury that we rejoice to see vindicated.

But retributive violence is a gratification of OUR needs… it is a response that protects US from the terrifying feeling of vulnerability that WE feel when we hear the cry of Rachel. But it does nothing for Rachel, for the one weeping for her children, for the one who cannot be comforted because her children are no more. As Richard Fiske tells visitors to the Pearl Harbor memorial “nothing brings back the dead” and certainly not our anger. In fact, “revenge will kill you.”[4]

But if revenge is the wrong response, then so is silence, because silence is far too often the retreat of apathy. It is the non-response that lets us stay comfortable when another human being is shrieking out the deep pain of their soul.

Swanson argues that the shriek in this story profoundly changes not only those who respond, but perhaps even more those who do not respond, those who “learn not to hear.” He writes, “I think they are changed most because they must live in the diminished world that is left to them in the aftermath, must live with what they learn about themselves when they cut themselves off from a mother who needs a human response.”[5]

It’s a different perspective on Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous quote that “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” In the echo of Rachel’s wailing, the tragedy is revealed to encompass both the people who are abandoned in their suffering and also the people who do the abandoning, and who lose their capacity for compassion in the process.

So then, what are we to do? How are we to respond to this wailing that repeats over and over, down the centuries? The will to revenge will only destroy us. As will apathy, the willingness to shut our ears. So, what is left for us to do?

Swanson offers us one possible way forward, from the stories and culture of Rwanda.

He shares an account from a foreign reporter in Rwanda during the time of the genocide, who tells about hearing a sudden cry of terror one night that was immediately answered by other cries.

When the reporter asked what was going on a Rwandan man explained “So there is responsibility. I cry, you cry. You cry, I cry. We all come running, and the one that stays quiet, the one that stays at home must explain. Is he in league with the criminals? Is he a coward? And what would he expect when he cries? This is simple. This is normal. This is community.”[6] The response of the Rwandan community when they hear a cry is to add their voices, and to move toward the one crying. It is to “cry and run together.”[7]

And this, finally, might be the most important answer to why this story of the inconsolable wail of Rachel is so important to the story of Jesus. Because “to cry and run together” is exactly what God does in Jesus in response to the cry of broken humanity. God hears the cry of every broken heart. Every mother whose child is taken. Every victim of violence and injustice. Every person with no power to protect themselves against the powers that plow them under.

God hears those cries, and God runs toward them. God puts on human flesh, God is born in naked vulnerability, and embodies a voice raised in a matching wail… in the stable, at his friend’s tomb, on the cross … Jesus raises his voice in a matching cry of pain for the brokenness of human life and loss.

We need to hear this story precisely BECAUSE of its vulnerability. Because we need to know that vulnerability is not our enemy when we hear cries of pain and fear and devastation in our world.

Vulnerability is NOT our enemy. Vulnerability is our path. The willingness to share in pain by embracing vulnerability is God’s response to pain, and it should be our response as well. The willingness to cry and run together in the middle of the pain – in the middle of any horror that rends the night with the sound of shrieking – the willingness to share in the pain of others who are suffering... that is where we will meet Jesus… God – truly - with us.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year A, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2007, p.19.

[2] Swanson, p. 78.

[3] Swanson, p. 19.

[4] Swanson, p. 26.

[5] Swanson, p. 19.

[6] Swanson, p.19-20.

[7] Swanson , p. 30.

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