The Magi

Epiphany 2010

Matthew 2:1-12

Marian Free

In the name of God who leads us to the Christ so that we might worship him. Amen.

The story of the appearance of the magi is well-known to us. If asked, I imagine that we could confidently retell it. Whether or not we could tell it without elaboration is a different matter. Many of us might say that there were three kings or wise men, we might even be able to name them (Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar) and to elaborate the meaning of their gifts. Were we to draw the scene, we would almost certainly depict a stable and include the shepherds. In fact, the story does not mention a number – in some traditions there are twelve – the visitors are not named and the meaning of the gifts is not given by Matthew. According to Matthew, the magi are the only visitors Jesus receives. The extra details which we take for granted, belong to later traditions which assumed that only kings could afford such extravagance and later generations may have been uncomfortable with the notion that magi or magicians could take such a prominent, positive role in the gospel. Over time the story changes and is transmitted in different forms despite the evidence of the gospel.

The magi appear only here in the New Testament. They leave the story as abruptly as they appear and we learn nothing of their origin or skill. Luz suggests that magi were originally members of the Persian priestly class – having much the same role as the priests and scribes whom Herod consults and that their study, while it included astrology (the study of the skies), also extended to Eastern theology, philosophy and natural science.

Unlike Luke, Matthew is not particularly concerned with the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. There is no census, no stable, no heavenly host and no shepherds. Mary and Joseph are already in Bethlehem and Jesus is simply born. Their residence in Nazareth only occurs after the brief exile in Egypt. It is the story of the magi which will reveal the significance of Jesus’ birth and which will set the scene for the development of a number of themes in Matthew’s gospel in particular the culpability of Jerusalem and the ruling class for the death of Jesus and the recognition and worship of Jesus by those are on the outer edge not only of Jewish society, but of Judaism itself.

The account of the visit of the magi is closely linked to the second half of chapter two by the repetition of a number of catchwords – star, worship. The two parts of chapter two – the coming of the magi and the slaughter of the innocents do not make sense on their own. The children would not have been killed had the magi not made their visit to Herod and made known the birth of the Christ.

Verse 1 sets the scene – Jesus is born, in Bethlehem of Judea (which affirms his Davidic descent) . Herod is king and magi come to Jerusalem (the centre of religious and political power). Verse two reveals the purpose of the visit and introduces the star and the “king of the Jews”. At this point the narrative divides into two parallel parts which contrast the meeting in the palace with the false King who is appointed by and dependent on Rome – Herod – with that of the meeting in an ordinary home with the genuine, God appointed king – the infant Jesus, who cannot yet act on his own, but who is authorised by God himself. The contrast is not just legitimacy or age, Herod will prove to be hypocritical and evil, Jesus to be God’s anointed representative. Herod appears to have the power and authority, but history will demonstrate that it is fleeting.
The contrasts between Herod and the magi are drawn out by the parallelisms in the two sections – the meeting with Herod in Jerusalem and the discovery of Jesus in Bethlehem. The star which appears in verse 2 reappears in verse 9, Herod and Jerusalem’s dismay at the news of Jesus’ birth is contrasted with the great joy of the magi when they find him. Herod’s plan to discover and destroy Jesus is frustrated by God’s plan to protect and save him. Structurally, both sections begin with a question about the king and end with a desire to worship him.

Matthew introduces in this section themes which will be expanded later in the gospel. The most significant of these is the culpability of Jerusalem in Jesus’ death. Herod, the ranking priests and the scribes are all associated with Jerusalem and Judaism, yet they do not observe the birth of the Christ and when they hear of it, instead of being pleased, they are dismayed. In contrast, the Gentile magi see the signs, recognise the significance and come to worship the child. Matthew alerts the readers to the fact that those who should have welcomed Jesus are the very ones who will either fail to recognise him, or who will reject and kill him.

Matthew’s readers who will have known that Herod was not respected or liked by the people will not have been surprised that Herod felt that his position was threatened by the possibility of a new king, but they will have been taken aback by the apparent complicity of the priests and scribes who assist Herod and by their failure to be joyful at the birth of the Christ. They will have been further surprised to learn that it is the magi, not the religious leaders who are open to God’s direction and who are seeking to bow down before his anointed.

There are many puzzles in Matthew’s account – is it historical, from where do the magi come, what is the nature of the star, why is it so different from Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth? However, what is significant is for the gospel story is that the magi who are obviously people of note because they have been guests in Herod’s palace – recognise Jesus and worship him. That is despite the fact that the child displays no obvious signs of his future significance, the magi fall on their faces before him – an act that would normally be reserved for gods or kings. After their departure, Matthew has no further use of them. Jesus has been revealed and Jerusalem has revealed its true colours. Through the magi Jesus has been identified as the Christ, expected by the people, sent by God, rejected by his own people and yet recognised as Lord by those who are willing to allow themselves to be guided by God. At the same time Matthew foreshadows what is to happen – Jesus will be perceived as a threat both to the political and religious leaders and the story will end where it began at the centre of power Jerusalem.

Matthew’s readers will understand that despite appearances, they are to identify with the magi, to allow themselves to be led by God, to discover Christ in ordinary circumstances and taking no notice of appearances to fall on their faces and worship him.

We too are asked to allow God to surprise us, to be willing to find Jesus where we least expect him, and having found him to acknowledge him as Lord.


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