|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
For Lutherans, our new hymnals, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, gives the following rubric under The Epiphany of Our Lord: "If celebration of the Epiphany of Our Lord is not possible on January 6, it may be observed on the second Sunday of Christmas (January 2 or later). When January 6 falls on a Sunday, it is celebrated as the Epiphany of Our Lord."
This year we have the opportunity to celebrate the Epiphany of Our Lord on a Sunday. I am glad. It is one of my favorite texts.
Warren Carter (Matthew and the Margins) titles his chapter on Matthew 2: "The Empire Strikes Back." He writes:
Chapter 2 contrasts two responses to God's initiative. (1) The empire strikes back as Herod, Rome's vassal king, and Jerusalem's settled elite of chief priests and scribes respond negatively. Herod employs military, religious, and social resources and strategies to thwart God's work. His murderous actions, allied with the inaction of the religious elite, demonstrate the oppressive structures from which Jesus is to save the world (1:21).
(2) The new creation expands through unlikely people who embrace God's purposes: the very mobile magi, Gentiles who have neither power nor valued knowledge, witness to the dawning of God's new age. And the non-elite and mobile Joseph and Mary receive angelic revelations, guard the life of "the child," and protect the divine purposes against Herod. God's purposes prevail with Herod's death, though the ominous phrase "Archelaus reigned ... in the place of his father" (2:22) warns the audience that the pernicious threat of empire is omnipresent for a marginal community of disciples.
These responses are sometimes falsely presented as a contrast between "rejecting Jews" and "believing Gentiles." The role of Joseph and Mary, and Herod's origin as an Idumean, clearly indicate that this division is not convincing. Rather the division consists of a sociopolitical dynamic between the powerful settled center (Herod, the religious elite) and the apparently powerless, insignificant, and mobile margins (magi, Joseph and Mary). [p. 73]
Our Gospel Lesson is a story the people have heard many times – or, at least, they think they've heard. That can be a problem. As soon as I, or any other person, start reading this text, they can tune it out with: "I already know that story."
Do they really know this story -- the story Matthew tells -- the biblical story? They are probably more familiar with the legends that have sprung up from this story better than they know the actual biblical account.
How many men are there? I think that most people will answer, "Three." They might be right, but they could just as easily be wrong. The Bible gives no number. The number three comes from legends and perhaps from the three gifts.
What are their names? The Bible gives no names. One legend lists them as: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, who was a black man.
We sing, "We three kings of Orient are..." The Bible never says that they are kings. It calls them "magi". Magi were a number of different things, but they were not kings.
This story of the Magi is not just a sweet tale that gets acted out every Christmas in a children's program. It is one of the most powerful stories in the gospel. One writer describes it as "the entire gospel crammed into a few paragraphs." [reference unknown]
"Herod" is the name of a Jewish family with strong connections with the Roman government. Members of the family ruled over Palestine from ca. 55 bc until near the close of the 1st century. The one mentioned in our text was Herod the Great. He was the only one who had the title King. In 40 bc, the Roman senate appointed him King of the Jews, but before he could reign, he had to remove Antigonus II from the throne of Judah. He had been placed there by Rome's enemy, the Parthians. Herod, with Marc Antony defeats Antigonus II who was executed by the Romans at Herod's request.
Herod ruled as king from 37 bc to 4 bc. His rule was marked by totally loyalty to Rome, harsh repression of any opposition, and family strife.
To understand the power of this story, the listeners must first come to a new understanding of the Magi. Many English translations render this Greek word, "wise men" (NRSV has "astrologers" in a footnote). That is being far too kind about these visitors. That is being misleading about these worshipers. Perhaps, because these visitors from the East are such good models of faith, we have been afraid to really present them for what they were. Originally, in Persia, Magi were dream-interpreters. By Jesus' time, the term referred to astronomers, fortune-tellers, or star-gazers. In fact, our word "magic" or "magician" comes from this word "magi". They were not so much respectable "wise men" or "kings" but horoscope fanatics -- a practice condemned by Jewish standards. We might compare them to people in fortune-teller booths, or people on the "psychic hotline" or other "occupations" that fore-tell the future by stars, tea leaves, Tarot cards, etc.
One writer describes the Magi this way:
The Magi would thus represent, to the early Jewish reader, the epitome of Gentile idolatry and religious hocus-pocus -- dabblers in chicken gizzards, forever trotting off here or there in search of some key to the future. [still hunting for this reference]
This same word occurs in Acts 13. Barnabas and Saul come to Paphos. There they meet Elymas, a Jewish Magi (or magus in the singular). This is how Paul describes him in verse 10:
You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?
Magi in Jesus' day were not "wise men". They were not models of religious piety. They were magicians, astronomers, star-gazers, pseudo-scientists, fortune-tellers, horoscope fanatics; but Matthew makes them the heroes in his first story following the Savior's birth. The Magi should not be there. They are heretics. They don't worship the right God. They are the wrong race, the wrong denomination, the wrong religion. They don't know how to worship ritely. Certainly they give the child gifts -- gold, frankincense and myrrh, but those are elements used in their magic. The Magi should not be there. They would have been much better models of unbelief and false trust; than models of faith, trust and worship.
Magi understood stars. Magi looked for and understood signs in the sky. A special star (or comet?) made sense to them. In addition, the text tells us that they came from the east and that they saw the star in the east (or at its rising). The sign came to them where they were. God got their attention in a way that they understood and in the place where they were at.
Brown (Birth of the Messiah) writes:
Matthew's age would not have found bizarre the claim that a star rose to herald the birth of the King of the Jews and subsequently guided magi-astrologers in their quest to find him. Virgin (Aeneid II 694) reports that a star guided Aeneas to the place where Rome should be founded. Josephus (War VI v 3; #289) speaks of a star that stood over Jerusalem and of a comet that continued for a year at the fall of the city. He says (v 4; ##310, 312): "God has a care for men and by all kinds of premonitory signs shows His people the way of salvation," and relates this to the Jewish belief that "someone from their country would become ruler of the world" (see also Tacitus Histories V 13). It is true that Pliny (Natural History II vi 28) combats the popular opinion that each person has a star which begins to give light when he is born and fades out when he dies; yet the thesis that at least the births and deaths of great men were marked by heavenly signs was widely accepted. [p. 170]
Thus, much of what we might find strange in this text, would have been considered quite natural to the first readers of Matthew.
I think that this text raises two very important questions for us today: "Where are the unchurched at today?" And "What signs will speak to them?"
Where are the unchurched at today? It is likely that many of the unchurched are at work with our church members. There are many unchurched at school with our members. They live in our neighborhoods. They are with us at the bowling alleys, in the bars, at community concerts. If God is to reach them, God has to go to where they are at – and the same is true for us as the church. The star appeared in the East -- where the Magi were living.
What speaks to the unchurched today? What might God do to get their attention? What might the church do to get their attention? What will make sense to them? Some answers are: style(s) of music, drama, quality of performances, meeting people's needs, caring for others, being a friend. I'm afraid that much of what they church has done in the past bores people. It drives them away. It doesn't attract them.
I've come to believe that a key question about nearly everything the church does is, "Are our members willing and encouraged to invite their friends and neighbors (especially the unchurched ones) to this church event or worship service? If not, why not?"
Matthew characters and locations present quite a contrast.
We might call these other characters the "insiders" or "people at the center of society -- the establishment".
Why do the Magi go to Herod? Why didn't the star lead them directly to Jesus? First of all, it doesn't say that the star led them to Herod. My guess is that the star "told" them that a new king had been born. Then they assumed that if a new king has been born, he must come from the royal family. He would probably be born in the capital city. They assumed wrong. The star got their attention. The star gave them some information, but it led them to false assumptions. We need to be careful that what we do to attract people, to get their attention, does not lead to false assumptions about God, about Jesus, about the Christian faith, and about the Christian church.
What corrected their false assumptions was the guidance of religious leaders and a word of scriptures. That's how they knew to go towards Bethlehem.
With all the good, flashy, stuff that may speak to the unchurched today, they need to be encountered by trained leaders in the Church and the Word of God or they are likely to make wrong assumptions and end up in the wrong place. The traditions of the church are vitally important to keep us going in the right direction – towards the salvation given by God through Christ.
Three times in this text (vv. 2, 8, 11) the phrase "pay him homage" (NRSV) is used. This is a single word in Greek (proskuneo) that refers to a posture of worship -- bowing down; and an attitude of worship. It seems clear that Herod expresses the desire to "worship" Jesus, but we know that it would be a false worship. His attitude is one of fear (v. 3) -- fear for his own position and status.
We can also ask, "If Herod and the religious leaders know where the king is to be born and if they really wanted to worship him, why don't they go with the Magi?" Carter gives this answer: "The powerful center resists God's purposes, while the lowly (Bethlehem) and marginal (the Gentile magi) embrace them" [p. 80].
It also indicates that just knowing the scriptures may not be enough either. I remember playing Biblical Trivial Pursuits and wondering, "What do all these minute details about scriptures have to do with salvation?" There needs to be a willingness to act on what one believes. As I mentioned earlier, I've come to believe more and more strongly that one of those actions is the willingness to invite other. If we really believe in the importance of our Christian faith and our participation in Church activities, why wouldn't we want to invite others into those experiences?
Getting people to go through the proper motions of worship does not mean that they have the proper attitude of worshiping God. Mark Allan Powell (God with Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew's Gospel) suggests what Matthew considers the proper response to Jesus – and it's not worship!
Still if worship is an appropriate response, it is not the ideal one. For Matthew, the ideal response to divine activity is repentance. … Indeed, Jesus never upbraids people for failing to worship or give thanks in this gospel (compare Luke 17:17-18), but he does upbraid those who have witnessed his mighty works and not repented (11:20-24). We know from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew that people can worship God with their lips even when their deeds demonstrate that their hearts are far from God (15:3-9). Thus, the responsive worship of the crowds in 9:8 and 15:31 is commendable but will be in vain if performed with unrepentant hearts. [pp. 41-42]
Repentance implies change. Herod and the establishment feel too well established to change. They like things just the way they are. They are threatened by the possibility of something new. (Would that fear ever be found in our congregations? <g>)
I think that there is a double meaning in the final phrase or our text. It does mean that these Magi went home by another road and avoided seeing Herod again; but I also think that they went home with another way. In Acts, the followers of Jesus were called followers of the Way (9:2; 18:25, 26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14). After being with the infant Jesus, the Magi were changed. They no longer acted or believed the same way they had before. They went home by another way.
Part of the new way is that they discovered the king on God's terms, not through their own understanding or assumptions. They discovered the new king through God's revelations to them -- both through the star and through scriptures (as proclaimed by the religious leaders).
If God has magi -- foreigners and pagans -- come as the first to recognize and give Jesus the proper respect as the King of Jews, we should know that there is nothing in our lives that would keep God from bringing us to Jesus -- and if there’s nothing in our sinful lives to keep us away from Jesus, then there is nothing in the sinful lives of those other sinners we meet every day that will keep them away from Jesus.
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364