The Wise Men and Herod, James Tissot (1836-1902)
Matthew 2:1-12 tells the story of the Wise Men’s visit to the Holy Family after the birth of Jesus. This is one of the most familiar of all Bible stories. We hear it every year. We see three Wise Men in front yard Christmas displays, we receive pictures of their visit on Christmas cards, and many of us were Wise Men in long ago Christmas programs. The story seems not odd or strange at all, but very familiar.
But to anyone hearing this story for the first time in the first century, the appearance of these men would have seemed very odd indeed. Upon hearing that these three characters had come to see the newborn Savior, those early readers would have asked, “What are they doing in the story? Who invited them?” It was God, of course, who invited them, and, who saw to it that they found their way to the right place, leading them by that bright star and all. But the average Jew of that day, for whom Matthew was primarily writing, would certainly be wondering why God would have included them. When it came to religion, the Jews at that time were very careful about who was in and who was out, and those men were about as far out as anyone could get.
First of all, they were foreigners– ‘from the East,’ says verse one. Secondly, they were not ‘wise’ men. That is an awful translation, so far from the original that it is hard to imagine how the word ‘wise’ ever got connected to this story. They were, in the Greek, ‘Magi,’ from which we get our word magician, and there is nothing in the rest of New Testament to indicate they were anything more dignified than that. And they certainly were not kings, as in ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are.’ They weren’t wise and they weren’t kings and nothing in the text indicates that they were. There are Greek words for wise men and for kings, but those are not the words used here. The word used is ‘magi,’ and in the two other places in the New Testament where the word magi appears, it is used in an unfavorable way. In Acts 8, it is Simon the Magi (there translated sorcerer) who opposes the ministry of the Apostles; and in Acts 13 there is Elymas the Magi, and there the word is often translated ‘false prophet.’ Nowadays, a magician may have a respectable job as an entertainer, and children can do magic tricks for fun. But in the New Testament world, magic was more in the realm of black magic; sorcery, fortune telling, astrology, and the like, the kinds of things God had forbidden, and not the sort of thing any respectable Jew would be interested in.
Not only that, these men were not wise, but very naive– at least when it came to politics. Who, after all, would go to the current king in power and ask him where the new king could be found? Certainly, no one would have asked this of jealous King Herod who already had two sons and a wife killed because he had some suspicions that they might be thinking about replacing him as king. Herod, of course, would want more information about this new competitor for his throne, and when the Magi did not return to tell him what they found, Herod had all the baby boys in Bethlehem under two years old killed. If the Magi had not gone to the King in the first place, this slaughter would not have happened.
These men from the east, whatever we might call them, are not Jews, they are not in a respectable profession, and they do not seem to be very wise at all in the ways of the world. So the first readers of this story would have seen them not as a natural part of an old familiar story, as we now see them. Rather, they would seem to be as out of place as Rush Limbaugh at a fundraiser for Nancy Pelosi.
But these Magi had one big thing going for them. They were on a search, the most important search of all, and they were taking great pains to seek and find this newborn King. They had been looking in the wrong place, the stars, but they did see something there, God knows what– and I do mean God. It would probably be more accurate to say God saw something in their desire to seek out this King, and then God honored their search by leading them to the right place. (continued…)
Matthew 2:1-2 — Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews, for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him?”
Matthew 2:3 — When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
Isaiah 60:1-3 — Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
—Book of Common Prayer