Sunday, 7 January 2024
Prof. Paul Foster
The story of the magi transcend simple black-and-white binaries.
Given this morning’s gospel reading, probably the most straightforward thing would be to draw a comparison between the presence of a malevolent ruler in the story of Jesus’ birth and the depressingly numerous situations in the world where innocent infants are dying because of political machinations in which they have no say or power. That might seem the way to go and on the surface it is a fairly obvious comparison. However, I do worry that it is somewhat facile and in fact I wonder if it is not just plain wrong. Whereas many of our current circumstance are the result of long and ongoing geo-political tensions often with large-scale backing, what we have in our gospel story is of a different magnitude. We are told that some travellers arrive in Jerusalem, who are well acquainted with the knowledge of their own time. They proclaim that they have come to worship a new king. On hearing this, the current ruler out of a desire to protect his own tenure lashes out with a cruel and calculating act of infanticide. Perhaps in comparison with the various other happenings of the time, this was deemed hardly news-worthy, maybe not news at all in a society where life was short, and yet it is part of a story we call the good news. How can that be?
Before we start looking at our gospel reading in detail, we should note two things. The first is historical, the second is typological. Apart from later narratives dependent on the Gospel of Matthew, there is no other account of the visit of the wise men and the ensuing murderous reaction of Herod. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing towards the end of the first century tells us a lot about Herod, but nothing about this incident. What Josephus does tell us is that Herod was appointed as a client king by the Roman Senate around 40 BC. He proved to be an effective ruler. By that, I mean he got things done. He enforced his rule with brutality. During his reign, Herod faced a number of plots to oust him, or to usurp his kingly role. Such pretenders found their lifespans significantly reduced as the result of such attempts. Having warded off several plots against him, towards the end of his period in office Herod became a little paranoid (to put it politely). He saw potential usurpers everywhere even among his family members. In 7 BC, after being accused of treason, Herod had his two sons Alexander and Aristobulus tried and executed. Two years later the same fate befell another of his sons, Antipater II. While we have no other confirmation of the wise men coming to Jerusalem and the subsequent slaughter of the male children in Bethlehem, its timing occurred during the period when Herod was executing his own sons. Those who heard the story recorded in Matthew’s gospel and also knew anything of the last days of Herod would believe that it had a ring of truth about it.
The second point of which we need to be aware is that the story has a typology or a patterning based on elements of the story of Moses as told in the book of Exodus. As we read the first part of the Gospel of Matthew there are numerous parallels. The most notably involve Pharoah’s attempt to kill all the newly born Israelite boys, then later in the Exodus account Moses’ flight out of Egypt which Matthew reverses with the holy family’s flight to Egypt, the forty years in the wilderness paralleling Jesus’ forty days, and then with the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew has Jesus, like Moses, ascend a mountain to deliver a new law for the people of God. Thus, as we read the story we are presented with a figure who is to be a new king, born in Bethlehem of the true kingly line of David, and also a figure who comes as a new Moses, to teach the people and to inaugurate a new covenant.
As we turn to turn to our gospel reading, the first thing we see is that Matthew establishes the correct geography for the birth of the true king. He is born in Bethlehem in the town of David. Those of you with good memories will remember the opening line of Matthew’s gospel – “the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1.1). While Matthew rarely returns to the link with Abraham, the claim that Jesus is son of David is repeated at multiple points throughout the gospel, and perhaps nowhere is that claim more important than in the section of the gospel we read. At this point travellers known as magi arrive. Despite being reliably informed by numerous Christmas carols that there were three wise men, Matthew simply does not tell us their number. These magi appear to be figures well-versed in the science of their day, a combination of astronomy, astrology, and some divination thrown in for good measure. They know how to interpret heavenly signs. As the story unfolds, they walk into the middle of Herod’s court and ask “where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” The specific title “king of the Jews” does not occur again in the gospel until chapter 27, where Pilate asks Jesus, “are you the king of the Jews?” It is also a title which the soldiers who scourge Jesus use to mock him, and finally it is charge that is written on the placard placed over Jesus’ head when he was crucified. Jesus being called king of the Jews places him in danger at the beginning of his life and it was also the charge that brought about the end of his life. Jesus’ true identity was what set the magi on their journey. It was also what led others to seek to destroy him.
After the arrival of the magi with their proclamation of the birth of a new king, the cunning Herod then assembles his own religious elite, the chief priests and the wise men. He enquired from them where the Messiah was to be born. Unlike the magi who have followed the star to ascertain where the Messiah will be born, Herod knows the answer will be found in scripture. He receives an answer to his enquiry that according to the prophet (in this case Micah), that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. This incident says something to me about the use of scripture. Knowing the scriptures is not a guarantee that one is guided by and lives by them. Herod’s intention was to subvert what was foretold by the prophets. You might notice that Matthew cites the scripture five times in the infancy story (we won’t get into discussion about Matt 2.23, a supposed citation without an apparent source). On each of the other four occasions Matthew prefaces the citation with a phrase along the line of “this was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet.” However, on this one occasion, although the prophecy is correct, Herod’s intent is to prevent the fulfilment of this text not to see it come to pass.
At the beginning of the passage we are told that the magi arrived after the child was born. It is the church’s tradition to celebrate the epiphany twelve days after Christmas. The reality is the story simply does not tell us of the time gap between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the magi. The duplicitous and deceitful Herod appears to have quickly formulated his plan – it corresponded to his standard response towards any who were claimants to the throne. They needed to be killed. Engaging in a murderous calculus, Herod enquires when the star appeared. No doubt Herod assumed the baby was born when the star first appeared, and that becomes the basis for his rationale to slaughter all the male children up the age of two. Then he instructs the magi to “search diligently.” Those words “search diligently,” always have a chilling effect on me. This a cold and calculating move, that aims to utilise the good intentions of the magi to advance Herod’s own evil purposes. Are these travellers who are so wise in discerning heaven signs really so gullible in not seeing Herod’s true intentions? It would perhaps not be the first time that those with an academic disposition are found to be dim-witted in the ways of the world. Believe me, that is a point you can trust me on! Maybe we should not read so much into the story. At this juncture, the magi depart Jerusalem and we have a scene change as they arrive at Bethlehem.
However, it is important to notice the points of contrast between the two scenes. Whereas the Jerusalem meeting with Herod had an ominous air and was filled with hidden intentions, on arrival in Bethlehem the magi experience unalloyed joy. Our translation gives us a less cumbersome expression than the Greek, when it states “they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matt 2.10). The King James translation takes us closer to that sense of unbounded joy that is expressed in the overloaded Greek phrase, with its translation “they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” That joy was occasioned not by the ending of a long journey, but rather by the discovery of the object of that journey. In the previous scene, Herod had declared that he wanted to know the location of the child in order that he might “go and pay him homage” (Matt 2.8). Readers know that such a statement to be patently false. However, the magi did not only declare their intention at the beginning of the story to pay homage, but they are shown to be true to their word and kneel, or perhaps better, prostrate themselves before the child. The Greek verb used here, προσκυνέω, can mean to pay homage to an earthy figure, but it is the same word that is used to describe worship of God. Matthew appears to be intending this double meaning, for he has already declared this child to be Emmanuel – God with us (Matt 1.23). We are familiar with the gifts and their significance: gold for a king, frankincense an exotic spice burned on religious occasions, and myrrh an embalming fluid. As early as the end of the second century, Irenaeus parsed these gifts as gold for royalty, frankincense for divinity, and myrrh for death and burial. After having fulfilled their vocation the transient magi, following guidance provided in a dream, wisely give Herod a wide berth on their return journey and take the scenic route home.
So what is this story all about? I do not believe it can be evoked as a simple parallel to the current problems besetting the world. However, although not in a facile way, I do believe it offers the answer to those problems. Honourable travellers fulfilling their vocation, parents cherishing a new born child, and the purposes of God still at work even in the face of an evil-intentions. This is not a sugar-coated story, there are harsh realities present. The story of the magi transcend simple black and white binaries. Children will die in Bethlehem, and the child Jesus himself will also be killed for being who is – the kingly one who is son of David, and not a royal pretender. The story presents a malevolent ruler who strives to hold on to power for the sake of power itself. Herod knows God’s purposes, but rather than accept them, he seeks to thwart them. Yet in the end he will die in ignominy, while the child continues to be worshipped.
Ultimately, this story, I believe, gives us a sense of our vocation. To stand up for the weak and not to be cowered by overbearing displays of power. To have the wisdom to know when to travel by a different way, and always to offer our best in worship of the one who is the babe of Bethlehem, Emmanuel, God with is, both in this world and the next.