Ah, yes, The Wisemen. Persian Magi from the east following a renegade star and searching for a child born king of the Jews. Visions of Christmas cards and nativity scenes, complete with camels carrying gold, frankincense, and myrrh dance in our minds’ eye. Yes, we know the story well.
Or do we?
It seems there might just be a few details that we don’t know about, a few details that illuminate the larger story, a few details that add richness and meaning to the story, a few details that could bring about a challenging epiphany within all of us.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “Thank you, Dick. I feel as if I know you personally!”
A thousand sparks to spark your imagination!
Let’s start with the Magi. The most startling detail about the Magi is that they were out-of-towners, foreigners, undocumented immigrants, gentiles, non-Jews. They would have stood out like Pistol Pete walking the streets of Norman. And they would likely not have been embraced as welcomed visitors. Remember, this was a time when, for the Jews, you were either a Jew or a gentile, one of God’s chosen or “other.” The gospel writer Matthew places this detail front and center by having the Magi wander through Jerusalem looking for someone to provide them with directions to the child born king of the Jews.
The next all important detail that we tend to overlook has to do with King Herod, also a gentile. When King Herod heard whispers about some strangers looking for a king, and it wasn’t him they were looking for, he got nervous. Actually it’s more than nervous, our text says he was “frightened.” All of Jerusalem was frightened too, because they knew old Herod could lapse into a murderous rage at any moment.
But tell us again why Herod was frightened? King Herod was frightened because he was a paranoid schizophrenic who had murdered his own wife, a son, and two grandchildren — all of whom he thought had eyed his throne longingly.
So the news that there might be another king out there who might just displace him, was enough to get Herod thinking how he could do away with the perceived threat. But this is where I think the most interesting detail of all comes into view. It’s a detail I’ve missed over the years. It’s a detail none of the commentaries address. It’s a detail that, I’m guessing, you’ve never noticed either. It comes right after King Herod sends for chief priests and scribes to find out from them where the “Christ.” is to be born.
Did you catch it? The Magi were looking for the child born “king” of the Jews. Who said anything about this child being born “the Christ”? The word for “king” is “basileus,” that’s the word the Magi use. The word for “Christ” is “Christos,” that’s the word Herod uses. Two very different and distinct words. The fact that Herod uses the word “Christos” suggests that Herod, of all people (Herod!), saw this child as more than just a king. Herod saw the child as “the Christ,” the Messiah, the Savior. So in the gospel of Matthew we learn that the first gentile to identify Jesus as the Christ is the murderous Herod! What are we supposed to do with that bit of news?
I think Matthew’s purpose in providing us with this detail is to call attention to the fact that between the Magi and Herod, the only people who recognized Jesus as King and as Christ were outsiders. The insiders, like the chief priests and scribes, didn’t put the pieces together, neither did the general Jewish populous. These are people, you’d think, would “get it,” but they didn’t. And what’s more, Matthew leads us to see two distinct responses to Jesus’ identity. The first comes through the Magi who bring gifts and long to pay homage to the child born King of the Jews. The second response comes through Herod who wants to kill Jesus before anyone else recognizes him as the Christ. In many ways, these two responses foreshadow the entirety of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus will be received as King and Christ by many “outsiders,” while the “insiders” will work to find away to kill him.
In a typical interpretation of this story we would be told that the Magi represent us, they represent “all nations.” We’d be reminded of how Matthew’s gospel ends — with the risen Christ commanding his followers to go and make disciples of “all nations.” And that’s where the typical interpretation would stop. But we can’t stop there because there’s a huge white elephant in the room and his name is Herod.
What we have in the Magi and in Herod is really a choice. Will we receive our King Jesus with joy and generosity or will we try to kill the Christ? Matthew skillfully, yet subtly, lays this choice out and doesn’t provide us with any wiggle room. There’s no middle ground here. Our lives speak for us. We are either grace infused, gift bearing believers/disciples or we are frightened, self-justifying, conspiratorial killers. I’ll bet you never head the story that way before?
You see, it’s not simply a once in a lifetime choice. We either commit our lives fully to Christ every day, or we don’t. We decide each and every day how we will respond to the presence of Christ in our lives: for or against.
• We live for Christ when we become practiced in the arts of faithfulness, obedience, care and compassion.
• We live for Christ when we seek peace and reconciliation.
• We live for Christ when we forgive others the way we have been forgiven; when we love the way we have been loved.
• We live for Christ when we bring the meaningful gifts of our lives and lay them before Him, to be used by Him.
And we seek to kill the Christ when we do none of those things. When we don’t reach out to outsiders; when we fail to embody care and compassion; when we hold grudges instead of seeking peace and reconciliation; when we use our gifts only for self-aggrandizement — we seek to kill the Christ.
Of course, as Herod and others would discover, you can’t permanently kill the Christ, your arms are just too short to box with God. Nevertheless, we are faced with a daily, hour by hour, minute by minute choice — a choice that tells the world who we are, and what we believe, and what stars we do follow, and to whom we do belong.
Our story ends with the Magi being warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, but to go home by another way. I think that’s Matthew’s succinct way of saying that any faithful encounter with Christ always results in a change of direction.
“Home” changes too. No longer is “home” our own private kingdom, but the world is now our Home. For in Christ there is no east or west, no Jew or Greek, no male or female, no insider or outsider — we are all one in the rescuing, forgiving love of Christ Jesus our Lord. So in whatever we do in word or deed, let us always actively choose to live for the Christ out King.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2012, Jeffrey K. London. Used by permission.