The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents



Scripture: Matthew 2: 13-23

The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents is not just a Biblical story; it is our story today.  The Holy Family became refugees, when King Herod’s fear and anger at the thought of a rival King of the Jews led him to carry out that atrocity.

I was quite young when I first heard this story. I had never heard the word genocide. The only refugees I had heard about were people displaced after World War II. They were known as “DP’s” – displaced persons. I was certainly young and innocent, even if not holy.

Genocides and Refugees: slaughter of the innocents today

The Holy Family flee to Egypt. From a stone frieze in Old Cairo

We can define genocide as “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.” I really can’t say whether the extermination of all the baby boys the same age as Jesus counts. But it must rank pretty close. Today’s Gospel lesson is a horror story that is all too familiar in our own time. King Herod deliberately targetted a specific group of innocent people. The Holy Family fled for their lives and became refugees in Egypt.

In our lifetimes we know of genocides in places like Rwanda and Sudan. People flee or have fled for their lives from so many places. From Syria because of destruction of war. Rohinga from Myanmar due to their ethnicity. Gays and lesbians from Uganda. From Central America because of gang warfare.

I contrast all these groups with people like myself who move to another country voluntarily. Refugees, by definition, do not choose to leave home. I chose to come to a country where I spoke the language, and where there was recognition of my educational qualifications. It was easy for me. I simply cannot imagine how difficult it would be to have to relocate somewhere I couldn’t speak the language, didn’t know the culture, and they didn’t accept my qualifications.

The Holy Family’s time in Egypt

We don’t know where the Holy Family settled in Egypt. I would like to imagine that they went to Alexandria. That was where there was a large population of Jewish people who spoke their language, Aramaic. Elsewhere in Egypt, people spoke mainly Greek or Coptic. Also, we know from the Gospels that Joseph was a carpenter, so he could presumably find work in Egypt.

Many refugees would like nothing better than to return home if it were safe to do so. Scripture tells us that Joseph also didn’t want to emigrate permanently. He took his family home again as soon as it was safe to do so, and went to live in Nazareth. Matthew, the most Jewish Gospel writer, interpreted these events as a prophesy from the Hebrew Scriptures. He quoted the prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt have I called my son,” confirming the messianic nature of Jesus. Jesus, the New Moses, came out of Egypt, like the original Moses who led the Israelites from Egypt at the time of the Exodus.

Last week, I talked about Herod’s fear and insecurity about a rival “king of the Jews.” That led him to his act of atrocity towards the Holy Innocents. It made me wonder how should we describe our own responses to the massacre of those innocent children – or the terrible fate of innocent Syrians and Kurds who have lived and died from Bashir Al-Assad/s bombs. Do we have empathy for them?

Empathy: the good and the bad

Book dust jacket

Empathy is (briefly) defined as “a person’s psychological identification with the feelings of someone else.” If another person is glad, I share their gladness; if they suffer, I share in their suffering. It would seem to be a very Christian of response, like “Do unto others …” But in a book entitled Against Empathy, an American psychologist (Paul Bloom), argues that empathy has a negative side.

Feelings of empathy inevitably draw us towards people or groups that we know or identify with. But what about the rest of humanity for whom we do not feel this empathy? Donald Trump consistently shows empathy for manufacturing workers in “rust belt” states. He claims that they lost their jobs to factories in Mexico and China. His goal is to bring these jobs ‘home’ to the US. That would inevitably be to the detriment of workers in those other countries. However, they would not deserve empathy because Mexican and Chinese workers are “them” rather than “us.”

The specific example broadened to the general case

A telling example is that when subjects watched an interview with a terminally ill child, most of them recommended moving the child up the treatment list (e.g., for a transplant). That would place that child ahead of other children who were presumably equally deserving, but unknown to the viewers.

Media training for politicians specifically encourages provoking the empathic, emotional response, rather than one based on reason. “Let me tell you a story about …” (often featuring little girls or kittens). You then arguing from the particular to the general.

Jagmeet Singh in the 2019 TV leaders’ debate. Photo:

Jagmeet Singh used this technique in the TV election leaders’ debate. Donald Trump used it when he cited the murder of an attractive young woman named Kate Steinle by an undocumented immigrant in California. He then argued that all undocumented immigrants should be deported. This sort of technique ignores rational arguments like whether undocumented immigrants in general commit the most murders.

Compassion is not the same as empathy

The Gospels never describe Jesus as being moved by empathy towards the less fortunate. They use the word “compassion” That word implies we use our rational faculties as well as our hearts in making decisions. When we donate food to Mission Services, we do not ask them to rank the eligibility of their clients to receive the food. If we depended on empathy, our emotional prejudices might lead us to promote (or to exclude) specifically those with mental health problems, refugees, single mothers, gays and lesbians, or the unemployed.

Compassion reminds us that people only use food banks because they and their families do not have enough to eat. Jesus asked the disciples, “Did you (or not) feed the hungry; if you did (or not) this for the least of my brothers and sisters you did it for me.” He did not make a hierarchy of which hungry people were most deserving.

Returning to Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents atrocity in today’s Gospel, I ask why the story shocks us so much. Maybe we react so strongly because King Herod unleashed a killing spree.  Or was it because the victims were little children? As parents and grandparents, we can’t help reacting with empathy – what if my child or grandchild was a victim? But pure emotion does not always lead to the most compassionate – and hence the most Christian – response. In the words of the hymn Take my life and let it be, “take my intellect and use every power as thou shalt choose”. That means compassion rather than empathy. We must use head as well as heart.

Fear and anger cause the slaughter of innocent people

The first verse of a hymn by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette reads thus. A voice was heard in Ramah that could not be consoled, as Rachel wept for children she could no longer hold. // For Herod ruled the nation, yet feared the Infant King. How great the devastation that fear and anger bring!

How great the devastation that fear and anger bring! reminds us how this New Testament story is our story today. Herod’s fear and anger led to the Slaughter of the Innocents. Pilate’s fear and anger of the crowd led to Jesus’ death on Good Friday. Fear and anger have prompted people to demand ever harsher sentences on criminals – minimum sentences and excessive use of solitary confinement. Most probably, it was the fear and anger of President George Bush and the American people at the events of September 11, 2001 that unleashed the disastrous events of this century in the Middle East.