Matthew's Gospel tells how Herod, on learning of the birth of a potential rival for people in his realm orders the killing of every boy child under the age of two which can be found in Bethlehem and the surrounding district. His violence and ruthlessness in controlling the people in Judea is already the basis of him being tolerated as a local ruler by the Roman overlords. Only when prompted by the enquiry of foreign visitors about the whereabouts of the child foretold by heaven do his own advisors search the scriptures and identify this child's birthplace.
Paradoxically, tradition speaks about them as martyrs, although for them there is no conscious decision involved in them submitting to death. They are martyrs in the sense of witnessing to the depths of evil to which people can descend in order to preserve what they value most - their own power and sense of themselves.
This story echoes that of the captive people of Israel whose expansion and vigour were perceived as a threat by the rulers of Egypt, who ordered the killing of all new born Hebrew boys to curb population expansion. Those who govern by fear are themselves governed by fears, and end up doing terrible and inhumane things to others, with no respect for the innocent or the weak.
Jesus warns sternly against harming children by causing them to fall or despising them. The young and vulnerable need all the support and affirmation they can get to grow up as healthy human beings. Not all suffering can be avoided, he says, but little ones need to be protected as much as possible from un-necesssary suffering. Every human being was once a child. Committing deliberate acts of cruelty and killing is a symptom that a person has lost their basic sense of humanity. Jesus recognises can happen in this fallen world, so terrible things can happen to children. He declares how much worse will be the consequences for those who abuse them.
Jesus also says that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven we are meant to return to the innocence and openness, trust and wonder of little children in relationship to God. This can mean facing up to the memories of suffering and hurt experienced as a child, turning to God for healing and release that will restore lost humanity. Anyone can claim the freedom to make this journey of repentance , but if we will not do it, we are damned indeed.