The four gospels contained in the New Testament offer very little information related to the early life of Jesus. This is understandable, as the purpose of these documents is not to provide biographical writing (in the contemporary sense) but to communicate the message and ministry of Jesus, with special emphasis on the significance of his death and resurrection. What material we do possess of Jesus maturing life relates either to the events surrounding his birth (Matthew 1:1-2:12; Luke 2:1-40) or an instance of Jesus’ appearance among the scholars in the temple (Luke 2:41-52). One other aspect of the early life of Jesus is regularly lost among these more memorable stories, the account of his family’s escape to Egypt. With a casual reading, it is easy to overlook the significance of the latter half of Matthew 2. This event in his life, however, may prove especially poignant for a growing number of Christians who see themselves reflected in the situation thrust upon the holy family.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, there are an estimated 10.5 million people considered refugee or stateless in 2009. Additionally, 4.7 million people are registered as refugees under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (“Refugee Figures” Accessed 1/30/2010). This number dramatically rises when it expands to include those displaced within the borders of their nation or those lacking accessibility to responsible government. For reasons that vary from economic, religious, political, tribal, or legal, a sizable portion of the world would consider themselves to be without a home. The absence of land-rights, abuses of indigenous people groups, economic disparity, and existing social structures contribute to the context which presents displacement as the preferred option for survival.
Gutiérrez has defined poverty as being “socially insignificant due to ethnic, cultural, gender, and/or economic factors” (2009:323). Refugees and displaced people easily fall within these parameters, as they have been removed from significant aspects of their life and livelihood. The response of the West has been to establish consolidated shelter to provide the basic necessities of life. E.J. Choge, writing the definition for Refugees in the Dictionary of Mission Theology writes, “life for refugees in the camps is very dismal. They depend on handouts from these huge organizations. They suffer every kind of alienation and deprivation, including loss of homeland, loved ones, and sometimes even life” (2007:331).
To recognize the tremendous vulnerability of Jesus and his family should serve as a reminder of this reality that is experienced throughout the world. In these contexts, God is not absent or aloof, but has demonstrated the depth to which his incarnation in Christ extends. For the evangelist and pastor among the poor, this text illustrates a shared experience between Christ and them. God himself is not unaware of the difficulty inherent in being torn from family, nation, and livelihood due to political oppression. Facing the pressure of Herod’s impending mass infanticide, Joseph discerns God’s message to resettle in a foreign land. Joseph is equally unsure about returning to the region even when he learns that Herod has died. To construct a timeline utilizing Luke 2:42 as a chronological point would picture the formative years of Jesus spent fleeing to Egypt, settling in an immigrant community, uprooting, emigrating back to Judea, and then re-settling in another ethnically diverse immigrant community in Nazareth before turning twelve.
Further pushing the point, the Matthean author identifies this event in the life of Jesus with the words of Hosea, “out of Egypt I have called my son”. This reference frames Jesus in line with the character of Moses (similarly spared from the mass infanticide of a despotic ruler) who led the people of God from captivity in Egypt to the Promised Land. This connection is not lost on those similarly seeking freedom from oppressive circumstances. God’s action in the exodus is considered normative for those who have developed a theology of Liberation in response to contextualizing theology to their contemporary circumstances. With this perspective, “usually the marginalized or oppressed group relates itself to the Israelites in their achievement of freedom from bondage in Egypt and their resulting autonomy” (Tate 2008: 315-6).
For the displaced person, reading this account in the gospel presents an image of Christ that would have understood their poverty. De La Torre imagines that Jesus felt similarly to him as his family was also forcibly emigrated for political reasons. This reading closes the gap between the idealized message of the gospel and the situation in which they find themselves. Because the displaced can identify with Jesus in his poverty, there is the possibility for them to identify with the message of his ministry and meaning of his death and resurrection. The Christian life is not reserved for the triumphant in the world, but for those who are longing for God to provide rescue from their vulnerability. “To understand Jesus from the social location of the poor is to create sacred space where the marginalized can grapple with their spiritual need to reconcile their God with their struggle for justice and dignity” (De La Torre, 2003: 109).
The attention to this aspect of Jesus’ life also affirms the worth of the world’s poor, both within themselves and for those in relation with them. “In addition, solidarity with the poor also sets forth a fundamental demand: the recognition of the full human dignity of the poor and their situation as daughters and sons of God.” (Gutiérrez 2009: 325). The consistent mind cannot allow for the degradation of a person due to their economic status while simultaneously esteeming Christ. This is made more explicit in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25, but the image in Matthew 2 should graphically demonstrate that it is not a stretch to imagine Jesus in need as a stranger needing shelter, clothes, and food. This is also true for how those experiencing poverty due to displacement view themselves. They are not forgotten or ignored by God, but uniquely similar to the character presented in the incarnation. “Because he experienced the cultural bias of being from the margins of society, oppressed and poor people, including those of color, are able to find solidarity with their God” (De La Torre, 2003: 111).
For the Western church which lives in luxury relative to the poverty of instability experienced globally, as well as the privileged stable surrounded by poverty, this reading of scripture is necessary to convey an element of discipleship missing to the interpreters that would identify Christ’s path with upward social mobility. Texts such as Philippians 3:20, 1 Peter 2:11, and a myriad of first covenant instructions on how to welcome the stranger take on an added reality when considered alongside the lived experience of millions of people around the world.
Choge speaks of this group of Christians when she writes that they “do not understand their own true identity as refugees and pilgrims, otherwise they would be ready to respond to refugees more positively. … They are vulnerable people and this is the reason behind God’s concern and clear biblical instruction on how we should treat strangers and refugees” (Choge 2007:331). Beginning with the unexpected notion of God choosing to live among people in such poverty forces the global Church to take seriously the value of these households in God’s perspective and the values that ought to guide the people of God in relating to a world in need.
“Refugee Figures.” United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c1d.html. Accessed 1/30/2010.
Choge, EJ. 2007. “Refugees” in Dictionary of Mission Theology.
De La Torre, Miguel. 2003. Reading the Bible from the Margins. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Gutiérrez, Gustavo (Robert Lassalle-Klein, trs.). 2009. The Option For the Poor Arises from Faith in Christ in Theological Studies 70 no 2 Je 2009, p 317-326.
Tate, Randolph. 2008. Biblical Interpretation. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishing.