Texts: Ps. 72:1-7, 10-14; Matt. 2:1-12
“At the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.”
It seems that our gospel reading is a story of a road trip. The culmination is a famous scene. It is the arrival of the travelers at the abode of Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus. This scene, usually called the Adoration of the Magi, has been depicted by scores of artists, especially those of the Renaissance. One of the reasons it was so popular was because it gave artists license to use expensive, lavish colors: vermilion red, ultramarine blue and gold leaf. In these scenes the travelers are often depicted in sumptuous flowing garments. The gifts they present to the child sparkle with expense. Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished version is done almost entirely in glowing yellow.
And yet, for all this attention, it is only the gospel of Matthew that includes this story. It shows up in none of the other biblical biographies of Jesus’ life. It’s quite possible that the other writers didn’t know what to do with it. To the biblical writers and early Christian communities the presence of this story might have been a bit like the arrival of the road-tripping visitors themselves—a bit awkward and unexpected. When you have a new child, one of the last things you want are fancy out-of-town guests.
Some early Christian communities were troubled by this story of the wise men because it appears to endorse two things they thought were negative influences on their lives: magic and astrology. In the Bible magicians are people who manipulate spiritual powers, not God but lesser spiritual entities. They offer sacrifices or gifts on behalf of their clients. Think of the magicians of Pharaoh’s court. They are not positive characters. Think of the fellow named Simon from the book of Acts. Simon was a practitioner of magic and wanted to buy access to the Holy Spirit’s power from the apostles. But he learns that God’s power isn’t to be bought and sold for clients. It’s a gift, available free of charge to everyone.
As I’ve suggested, it isn’t only the presence of magicians that caused problems for early Christians. It was also the fact that these magi practiced astrology. Astrology was a popular interest in the Greco-Roman world, but early Christian communities believed it to be harmful. They saw it as a fatalistic belief system. To believe that one’s future was held in the stars meant that choices weren’t important. If everything was charted out in the heavens, then neither our acts of prayer nor our growth in Christian virtue matter very much.
So, we might be so used to seeing the wise men and their camels in our manger scene, but they don’t actually fit quite so easily. After all, the coming of the messiah was a very Jewish idea. It was linked to the Hebrew scriptures. It was believed to be an extension of the ancient Israelite monarchy.
Matthew may include the story of the wise men, but even he doesn’t actually tell us much about them. Notice, for instance, that he doesn’t actually say there were three. And notice that their identity as “wise men” is a bit of whitewash. Even our modern translators are a bit flummoxed. The Greek term here is “magos.” It’s a word imported from ancient Persia. It’s the root of the word magic. The magos or magi were a Persian cast of priests or sorcerers. They were scholars, yes, but also practitioners of cultic magic.
So when we think of Matthew beginning this account of Jesus’ life, we can imagine that he is a bit unsure of what to do with this story. Maybe he gets up and paces around a bit. “What do I do with this story of these strange visitors from the East?,” he wondered. Matthew would have known of Mark’s account, but Mark says basically nothing about Jesus’ birth. Mark offers no guidance. So Matthew would have had to think long and hard about what to do with this story of these road-tripping, star-gazing Persian priests.
Matthew was like us in that things happened to him and around him and he needed to make sense of it. We often don’t think about this ongoing challenge until something extraordinarily painful happens. We’re forced to ask “Why?” or “What’s the point?” In those moments we realize that we need something transcendent to help us understand. What do the events of our lives mean? What is the larger context?
Matthew looked to his scriptures for answers to these questions. “Magi from the east, what can this mean?” I imagine that, as he paced about, several passages came to mind:
One would have been a story from the book of Numbers. In Numbers 22 we meet another magician from the east, a man named Balaam. Balaam was paid to curse the Israelites. However, God interrupted Balaam and imparted a series of prophetic messages. In one of them (Num. 24:17) Balaam says, “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”
“Hmmmm,” thinks Matthew, “maybe these wise men aren’t total outliers. After all, Balaam wasn’t an Israelite and God spoke to him. Maybe the arrival of these travelers from the east was an early clue. Jesus’ birth was to have broader importance than many recognized at the time.”
If you peruse some of the artistic renditions of the Adoration of the Magi, you’ll notice that many of the artists follow Matthew here and emphasize the foreignness of the “wise men.” The artists depict them in exotic dress, emphasizing that through their visit, the story of Jesus was being linked to the far corners of the known world. Herod may be threatened by the arrival of the Christ child, but to these representatives of other nations it was already good news.
Our writer, Matthew, continues his pacing and thinking. He thinks now about the gifts these travelers brought. He remembers Deuteronomy 16 and Exodus 23 and 34, which all say that worshipers “shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed.” Matthew sees these foreign visitors in contrast to Herod. The foreigners know how to worship God. Herod hasn’t a clue. These wise ones, even though they are outsiders, are true worshipers.
Then Matthew really begins to get excited. He remembers that Isaiah (c. 60) talks about the nations being drawn to God. Isaiah says: “Arise, shine; for your light has come . . . . Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant . . . the wealth of the nations shall come to you. . . . They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”
And Psalm 72, it says that foreign kings will bring gifts of gold to the true king of Israel because he will look out for the needy and the poor. He will redeem lives from oppression.
Matthew now understands what the arrival of the magi means. But there is still the star and this astrology business. Modern interpreters have tried over and over again to identify some actual star or comet that the magi were seeing. But this misses the point.
For ancient astrologers, especially those rooted in Babylonian tradition, the stars foretold the unfolding of history. They symbolized powers too big for individuals to challenge. So, for Matthew’s readers the appearance of this new star meant that whatever God was doing through Mary’s son, it was a challenge to the meta-powers. It meant that something systemic was shifting.
Matthew might have thought of Joseph’s dream. Not Mary’s husband Joseph, but Jacob’s son Joseph, the one who saved Jacob’s family and many others from famine. That Joseph dreamt of the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to his star. That celestial curiosity was about actual comets or stars but about God’s saving grace.
There is another connection, another layer of meaning. We see it in the way Matthew describe the actions of the star: the star rose, it led, it stopped. It did for the travelers what the pillar of fire and cloud once did for the ancient Hebrews. It showed them what God was doing. It was a sign of God’s care.
Near the end of his biography of Jesus, Matthew would return once again to this theme of the stars. In chapter 24 he says that when the stars fall it means that the powers of the heavens have been shaken and the end of the age has come. What the eastern astrologers saw in the stars was the end of the old powers. Herod couldn’t see it. He depended too much on the old ways. But the outsiders saw it. They understood.
So, Matthew tells us, “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
We can imagine the Renaissance artist turning from his easel. He’s sketched the scene already. The room, rough and sparse. Mary, with the child on her knee. The strange visitors kneeling, offering their gifts. Balaam’s donkey is in the background. The artist finds his keys and opens his locker. Reaching up, he pulls down some the most expansive pigments, vermilion, ultramarine, and gold leaf.
The magi have brought their best. Their scholarship. Rich presents purchased from Arab traders. They have brought themselves, outsiders to Judea but not to God. They have brought their true worship.
And so the artist goes to work. The scene becomes luminous, radiant with joy. The light of God’s presence abounds.
The artist, along with Matthew, welcomes us. We who are foreign to Mary and to Joseph but not to God. We who are drawn by beauty. We who hope for a change in the arrangement of the powers. We who whose hearts are moved to praise. We are welcomed and invited to offer our best.
Oh God, let us see your work as did these ancient and mysterious travelers. May joy, praise and generosity be the result. Amen.