This is the season when Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus. The Holy Family is prominent everywhere. Nativity scenes are displayed in churches, on neighborhood lawns, on Christmas cards, and as ornaments on Christmas trees. Beloved Christmas carols record the humble birth of Jesus in a manger. Angels proclaim that the birth of Jesus brings peace on earth and good will throughout the weary world.
The Christmas story is particularly relevant in this year of 2015 as our country debates our response to the plight of Syrian refugees. Well, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were refugees too.
Yes, that is correct. According to the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod, fearful of losing his political power, decided to kill all the male children in the region of Bethlehem who were two years old and younger. It was a brutal and massive slaughter. So, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt. They risked everything in order to save the life of Jesus. There they stayed until the tyranny ended, and it was safe to return to their homeland. This scenario sounds all too familiar today as thousands of Syrians are trying to escape violence in their homeland and save the lives of their children.
We can afford to be nostalgic about the baby Jesus, but Christians have a more difficult time applying the teachings of the adult Christ. Consider the Parable of the Good Samaritan recorded in Luke 10:25-37.
A Jewish scholar asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus asked the lawyer what was written in the Jewish law, the man readily responded: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as one like yourself.”
Jesus responded: “You have answered correctly; do this, and you shall live.”
Then came the question that has echoed through the centuries: “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus told the story of a Jewish man who was traveling the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho when robbers stripped him and beat him and left him half dead. Both a Jewish priest and a lay-associate to a priest (a Levite) passed by, saw the man, but did not wish to get involved, either because of fear or indifference. It was a despised enemy of the Jews, a Samaritan, who showed compassion and saved the life of the Jewish victim. Jesus ended his story by asking, “Which of these three do you think proved neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed mercy to him.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
By choosing a Samaritan as the one who demonstrated superior moral behavior, Jesus challenged racial, ethnic, and sectarian prejudice of his day. I am constantly amazed that the rhetoric of hatred and fearmongering comes most often from those who profess to be Christians. My fellow believers appear to miss the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Those who kneel dutifully at the manger fail to see the connection between the plight of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus and that of the Syrian refugees. When I hear Christians spout vitriolic words of violence and intolerance, I am left wondering if they have ever read the New Testament or taken seriously the love of God embodied in Jesus Christ.
Other Christians, like the priest and the Levite in the parable, do not want to become involved because they are afraid or unconcerned. Too many Christians are committed to their own opinions and privileges rather than to the inclusive love of Jesus. Thus, we are waging war instead of pursuing peace. It seems to me that there are a lot of goats trying to pass as sheep.
It is not surprising that when the adult Jesus spoke of the Final Judgment before God (Matt. 25:31-46), his criterion was simply this: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”
The last verse of “Away in a Manger” is my Christmas prayer this year:
“Be near me, Lord Jesus! I ask you to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray;
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven to live with you there.”
The conclusion of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is my hope for all Christians:
“When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendor fling
And all the world give back the song which now the angels sing.”
I still believe in Christmas – not as a sentimental attachment to a self-serving holiday, but as a daily commitment to follow the example of Jesus. I still believe in peace on earth and good will, and I know that it must begin with me – my faith, my attitudes, my speech, and my behavior. I hope that those of us who call ourselves Christians will become a living nativity scene: that we will see Jesus, Joseph, and Mary in the eyes of all refugees and that we will realize that whatever we do to the least of these among us, we do it to Christ as well.
Linda Jordan was formerly the senior minister of Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church om Chapel Hill and subsequently the director of the Unicorn Bereavement Center for Duke HomeCare and Hospice. She is now retired and lives in Pawleys Island, South Carolina.