Wisdom, power, and vulnerability: In today’s gospel lesson for Epiphany, we see all these factors interacting
First there is wisdom.
The wise men came from Persia, present-day Iran. Matthew called them magi. It was originally a Perisan word (magus in the singular, magi in the plural). It referred to people who were partly religious scholars and partly astrologers. By the time of the New Testament, the term magi also acquired an overtone of sorcery, so we get our words magic and magician from these Persian scholars.
Most English translations of the New Testament translate Matthew’s magi as “wise men”. We really know very little about them. Matthew doesn’t tell us how many wise men made the trip from Persia to Bethlehem. Some of the older Christian traditions have anywhere up to twelve wise men. Because of the three gifts, a tradition soon developed in the church that there were three wise men.
One thing we know is that, despite the words of some old carols, the wise men were not kings. The part about their being kings came from a Christian legend from a somewhat later time than when the New Testament was written, partly because of the reference to kings in the lesson from Isaiah which, by then, had become associated with the visit of the magi.
Being good first century Persians, the wise men were Zoroastrians, followers of an ancient religion that is still found among the Parsee community in India. As far as we can tell, they continued to be Zoroastrians when they returned to Persia. There is nothing in the gospel that gives any indication to the contrary.
So, Matthew’s gospel tells us of a group of exotic foreign intellectuals coming to pay their homage and give their exotic gifts to the child Jesus. And then they went home,
- back to Persia,
- back to their star charts,
- back to their Zoroastrian faith.
While remaining people of their own culture and their own traditions, they were drawn to this birth, and to this child. The wisdom tradition that illuminated their religion and culture was one that led them to appreciate the traditions, the faith, and the wisdom of other peoples. But still, they went home: home to their own traditions, their own faith, and their own wisdom.
Wisdom was confronted by the child of Bethlehem. Wisdom came and paid its homage.
Then there is power.
The wise men made a big mistake when they visited the palace on their way to Bethlehem. But of course, even the wisest wisdom is never infallible. The king panicked. The panic was for good reasons if you shared his logic.
Herod was king over the Jews but he wasn’t a Jew himself. By the standards of the day, he was an old man, getting close to the end of his life.
Herod ruled as king in Jerusalem because he was Rome’s man in Jerusalem. One writer said that Herod was no worse than other puppet kings put in place by the Romans in his day, but “he was fully as bad as” the others. He ruled with an iron hand, feared and hated by the mass of people. His policy was to keep the locals terrorised while he practised an appropriate level of obsequiousness to his patrons in Rome.
Herod had three sons who divided his puppet kingdom after his death. When the wise men visited and spoke of new-born king, Herod was already anxious to the point of paranoia about matters of succession. The wise men threw him into a panic. A potentially popular claimant to the throne ... one who was a Jew himself ... a descendant of the great David no less ... such a person would be a threat to Herod’s plan to set up a new dynasty. So, baby or no baby, the rival claimant must die.
And when the wise men returned to Persia without a final courtesy call at the palace, Herod’s plan for an assassination became a plan for a massacre. “Collateral damage” is what the military boffins and political spin-doctors call it these days. The real word is murder.
Power was confronted by the child of Bethlehem. Power panicked and ordered a massacre.
And then, finally, there is vulnerability. And the couple and their newborn child who sheltered in Bethlehem’s stable were vulnerable to the extreme.
- Jesus, as a baby, would have been vulnerable by definition. Herod’s murderous plans magnified the danger.
- Then there was Mary, a young woman whose pregnancy would have been the occasion for gossip and harsh remarks – and the possibility of violence - in her community. It happens today, in the twenty-first century, even in a supposedly tolerant nation such as Australia. How much worse would it have been two thousand years ago.
- Then there was Joseph, he probably caught a lot of flak from people for going ahead with the marriage. Exactly how welcome either Mary or Joseph would have been among their families and friends would have been anyone’s guess. Perhaps that was why Mary and Joseph needed to look for an inn in their own home town.
But then, there were also those Persian scholars. They came, paying homage and bringing gifts. In addition to Matthew’s visitors from the East, Luke told of some local wise people, Simeon and Anna, who also paid tribute to the child Jesus.
Vulnerability was personified by the child of Bethlehem and his family.
- Then as now, vulnerability brings out the worst from those who those who seek to acquire power for its own sake.
- Then as now, vulnerability brings out the best from those who seek to live according to wisdom.