A reflection on Matthew 2:1-12 for Wednesday, January 6, 2021
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSVA)
Our story is as disturbing as it is mesmerising.
Matthew’s account of the ‘wise men’ is remarkable. They seem to be – of all things – astrologers. They look to creation as a source of understanding the events of their time. Clearly they come from beyond Israel’s borders and are led by sources beyond Israel’s scriptures.
These men come from the nations. They are foreign. They are gentile.
And God – as promised in Isaiah 60 – is leading them to see and serve he newborn Messiah. They are God-led and God-called.
Yet Matthew tells of the fear response of ‘Herod…and all Jerusalem…’ at their arrival and their news. They have recognised the light – in the form of a star – while Israel’s elite have missed it.
The Messiah the Magi herald is perceived as a threat to those whose re-visited scriptures point in exactly the same direction. In this story scripture and star guide to the same place.
Both lead to ‘Bethlehem of Judea’.
Yet the response of king and priest stands in stark contrast to these magicians. The latter brim with joy and anticipation.
The elite of the holy city, however, are terrified. For them the ‘child’ is a threat. The chief priests and scribes scripture search does not calm their hearts. The prophecies identify Bethlehem – but also a coming ‘ruler’.
No wonder Herod responded. He collects his information. Secretly sends the visitors. Disingenuously asks to eventually join them in ‘homage’. The God-guided sojourners innocently leave the palace.
And the universe guides them to a stable.
I wonder how their hearts responded as they edged around the cattle? Did they cringe at the smell? Were they tempted to conduct a spring-clean? Were they confronted by such an unpromising beginning? Did they wonder at how childlike this ‘child’ really was? We are not told.
What we are told, however, is remarkable: ‘they were overwhelmed with joy’; they entered, saw the child and Mary, ‘knelt down and paid him homage’, and, gave their three generous – and prophetic – ‘gifts’.
In Isaiah only the gold and frankincense are prophesied. Myrrh is the surprise here. It is used in preparing a body for burial. This gift is an early indication – and prediction – of the path through death that this child will take.
Sadly, these gifts are far more than Herod will offer. Their return home is at least as secretive as their disclosing meeting with him. A dream. A new road to guide them home.
For the reader of Matthew the expectation is increased. We now know of powerful enemies. Insiders who will use the revelation of scripture to oppose the vulnerable Messiah.
This child – from the very outset – inspires both fear and joy.
How sad that the worship and service of these magi was perceived as a threat rather than an additional pointer – an Epiphany – of the Messiah.
Where have you been surprised by the breadth of those who offer service to God? What was your response to this surprise?
How do you respond to the thought that creation and scripture point in the same direction? Do you respond with grace or fear?
There is a’ bigness’ to Matthew’s account of the magi. What does this say about the breadth of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ this Gospel proclaims?