A reflection on Matthew 2:1-12 for Sunday, December 18 at Mosaic Baptist Church
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)
Jesus, according to the writer of Matthew, certainly had significant ancestral pedigree. Abraham, David, and Solomon, to name a few, point to Israel’s legends in Jesus’ borrowed ancestral line. Through his adopted father, Joseph, we have connection with Jewish royalty.
By the time Jesus is born, however, all these are long gone. Jospeh seems to be a ‘faithful’ or right/just man of humble – or at least for Matthew – unmentionable means. His great quality is that he hears and obeys the angel who guides him and his dreams. Joseph himself, with echoes of the obedient Noah, never speaks. A man of humble and exemplary action.
All this makes Matthew’s narrative jump to Herod, the ruling king, and his well-to-do eastern visitors all the more noteworthy. With little warning we have moved from the tiny town of Bethlehem into the courtroom of the king. Although Bethlehem is little more than five miles outside David’s City, Matthew has certainly taken us into a new space.
Here human schemes are inspired by fear threat to power. Herod is threatened and scared of the prospect of the ‘King of the Jews’. His inquiry into the birthplace of the ‘Messiah’ indicates that he understands the implications of the phrase. He turns without hesitation to the religious leaders for answers. They turn without hesitation to the prophet Micah and point to the village of Bethlehem.
The Jewish prophets – and the stars – have pointed in the same direction.
From here, however, it is all rather shady and underhanded. The madness of power seems to have overtaken reason in the king’s mind as he turns to these now ancient predictions to determine the action of God – and thwart it. Everything – even the prophecies of God – are bent toward the preservation of his power. The wise are silent and led. The foolish open their mouths seeking an alternative.
There is little humility in this palace.
So Herod ascertains the timing of it all and sends these foreign astrologers on the road to Bethlehem with the disingenuous charge to let him know of any discovery. One might expect him to send his religious advisers along or even go himself. After all, it is so close – and so significant.
Herod, however, does not want even his religious leaders to share the depths of his concern – nor to have opportunity to recognise another. His are secret plans. Foolishly thinking these star-led magicians are not also led by God, he tries to trick them into an unwitting participation.
They politely listen – but are led by heaven.
The stopping star has mystified many. Perhaps it has stronger echoes of Israel being led by ‘fire’ and ‘cloud’ than natural and predictable celestial movement. Either way, we have an ecstatic arrival at a ‘house’ where they encounter a child and his mother. Their response: to kneel and give.
Many have read significance into their three mysterious gifts. Gold draws the mind to the royal prophecies regarding this child. The strong aroma of frankincense was often used in the worship of deities. Myrrh was a spice widely associated with death and burial.
Like Micah’s words, these gifts are prophetic in nature. Perhaps these pagan visitors know more – much more – than we are prone to give them credit for.
In the Gospel of Matthew many have observed both the Jewish nature of the message and the particular emphasis placed on the ‘gentiles’ or the nations. These themes are introduced in the writer’s opening genealogy which establishes the Jewish lineage of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. The story of the astrologers above emphasises the interest of the whole world in the birth of this child.
Indeed, our story goes further. The star points to a creation-wide interest. This is a cosmic story of a creation-celebrated salvation.
Surely after the story of pagan visitors led by star, prophecy, and dream, we have reason to pay careful attention to what this child might reveal about the nature of the God of the universe.
What do you see as the implication of pagan astrologers recognising the ‘King of the Jews’ when the religious insiders could, or would, not? What do you believe motivates their long journey even when the part-day journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is not undertaken by these religious leaders?
How do you think these magicians open up the expectation that this ‘salvation’ is for a wider audience that most might imagine? How does their presence in this story surprise?