When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
We are continuing our blog series on the Church calendar, and we are in the season of Epiphany, where we wrestle with the implications of God’s Incarnation in Jesus the Messiah.
Last week, we read about how the forces of evil gathered to murder the Christ child in his crib, and how this reminds us that though Christians are assured a final victory over evil, evil will not back down without a fight.
Herod’s attempt to murder Jesus was unsuccessful; Joseph was warned by an angel, and he fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. When Herod dies, Joseph and family make their return to Judea, and Matthew writes that this is in accordance with the writings of the Prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Matthew is quoting Hosea 11:1 here, but this presents a puzzle. It is clear that the “son” Hosea is referring to in that passage is Israel. Hosea in chapter 11 is writing to an Israel scattered through conquest and exile, and he is assuring the people that God’s faithful love to Israel will call them back out of the nations as he once before called them out of Egypt. Why would Matthew then use this passage to refer to the child Jesus’ return from Egypt?
The key to the answer is to understand the biblical themes of representation and substitution. Adam was not only the first man, but a representative head who summed up all of humanity in himself. As a result, his faithlessness is our faithlessness. Not only that, but Adam’s vocation was to represent God’s rule to creation as the image of God, and to represent creation’s praises back to God. Adam was the first royal priest. But the sin of Adam corrupted not only his ability to exercise his vocation, but the very nature of creation itself.
In order to rescue creation, God called Abraham and formed a nation from him, which He named Israel. Israel was a substitute for Adam–where Adam had failed as a royal priest, Israel was to be a nation of royal priests. As a substitute, the nation of Israel would then represent all the world to God, and be the means of the healing and restoration of Creation. But, as the Hebrew Scriptures sorrowfully recount, Israel too fails in its vocation. In its selfishness and idolatry, Israel reenacts the sin of Adam.
But just as all hope seems lost, in comes Jesus Christ, the true Israelite. He is the substitute for Israel, who was the substitute for Adam. And where Israel and Adam failed, Jesus succeeds! His entire life is one devoted act of worship to God the Father, and he is obedient even to the Cross and death. Therefore, God vindicated Jesus and raised Him up after three days, to be the representative head of a New Creation. All those who are joined to Jesus through faith now have the vocation of the royal priesthood, set to combat evil and love justice.
When Matthew sees Jesus as the “son” in Hosea 11:1, he is telling his readers that Jesus was who Israel was pointing to all along: The Perfect Human who is the exact Image of God. Jesus fulfills Israel’s vocation as the true substitute and New Adam. In Jesus, our long exile from God’s presence is finally ended.
But there’s more. In Jesus, we see the depths of God’s identification with humanity. Jesus was born to a poor family in an oppressed nation. Jesus spent formative years as an immigrant and a foreigner in Egypt. Even when he returned to his homeland, he returned as a stranger, a former refugee who still had to be careful and avoid the murderous intentions of the ruling Herodian dynasty.
When Christians see the plight of the immigrant laborer or the refugee child, we have no warrant to be callous or unfeeling. Our precious Lord and Savior was an immigrant and refugee. While political decisions should always be made with prudence and wisdom, we must realize that when we look at the face of the foreigner fleeing oppression, we look at the face of our God.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’