In his book Banished Messiah, Robert Beck argues that Matthew frames his Gospel narrative of Jesus as a story of exile and return. With the two passages from early in Matthew’s Gospel, we can see where Beck got this idea. Before he is old enough to know what is going on, Jesus has been exiled twice. First to Egypt to escape the slaughter Herod intended for him, and then to the backwater up at Nazareth where, according to Nathaniel, nothing good could come. All this after Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, the city of David, close to Jerusalem where the action was. Not until the end of his life does Matthew have Jesus reach Jerusalem where he enters as the rightful king who is unjustly put to death.
Exile is how Empire sustains itself. The Jews knew this only too well as their exile to Babylon was one of their most formative experiences as a people. It was during their exile that the Jews came to understand fundamentally how Empire and its pagan religion operates and it was through this learning that the Jews began to really understand who really rules the world and has done so since the time of creation.
Jeremiah’s oracle that God was going to “ransom Jacob” and “redeem him from hands too strong for him” are as stirring as similar oracles of return in Second Isaiah, but Jeremiah’s oracles are all the more remarkable because he made them when he was just about out the door on his way to exile in Egypt as the Babylonians took over Jerusalem. More remarkable yet, Jeremiah had redeemed a piece of family property just before the axe fell on his people.
Exile, then, is the condition of the powerless, the one rejected by Empire. Exile is the fate most of us fight against tooth and nail starting with our earliest socialization as children. We want to be in an in group, not an out group. We want to be at the center of power, not the periphery. And yet the periphery was where Jesus found himself by the time he was old enough to find himself. The Empire knew it could not welcome Jesus and Jesus knew that just as well.
All of this suggests that if we want to be where the action is, we’ll miss out on the real action. The real action may not seem very exciting: growing up as a human being in a backwater somewhere, where nothing good can come. And yet it is by growing up with Jesus, away from the centers of power, that we come to learn of what is important in life. We learn to value other people as people, not for what power that can broker for us. Here is where we find the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost everything else, including what has been lost within each of us until we find Jesus where nobody else is looking.