A Provocation: The Epiphany: January 6, 2017: Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12
2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,

2:2 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.”

2:3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;

2:4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

2:5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

2:6 ‘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.'”

2:7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

2:8 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.”

2:9 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.

2:10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

2:11 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.

2:12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

A Question or Two:

  • Why were the magi warned not to return to Herod?
  • What was the outcome of their decision to return “by another road?”
  • Wouldn’t it have been better (in terms of lives saved) to have warned them ahead of time just to avoid Herod altogether?
  • If God can warn in a dream, couldn’t God have told them where to go in a dream?
  • Because of the actions of the wise men, the babies of Bethlehem are killed.  How wise is that?

Some Longer Reflections:

Wise men arrived.  The old word for these wise men was “Magi.”  That is a transliteration (by way of Latin) of the Greek word that appears in the text, μάγοι, which translates the word, magus, from which comes the English word, “magic.”  

The ones who came into this story were wise men.  They were magicians.  They were priests, but they were certainly not Jewish priests.  

They came from the East…

…which means that they are best understood by linking them with magi from Persia, who were Zoroastrian priests.  

These priests who were not Jewish came from the East because they had seen a star.  They paid attention to the star because they believed that the stars revealed the truths of the patterns of the Universe and thus shaped the lives that people lived under the stars.  That means that they were astrologers.  But that means that they were not only “not Jewish” but that they were among those specifically condemned for their foreign religious practices (see Deuteronomy 18:9-14, for instance).  

Men who were wise in the ways of sorcery came from a foreign land, distant and dangerous, came to Judea, first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem.  

And because these foreign sorcerers came from the East…

…Herod learned of the birth of Jesus.  And because Herod learned of the birth, he began the Imperial hunt for the king of the Jews that would only be completed when Pilate crucified Jesus and explicitly named him as “King of the Jews” by nailing the placard above his head (Matthew 27:37).

My first reaction, of course, is to wish that these pagans had minded their own business and had stayed out of the story.

Had they stayed home, Herod would never have slaughtered the toddlers of Bethlehem and Jesus’ family would never have been refugees.

That first reaction is rooted in a naïve wish that perhaps we all share.  I wish that things had gone better than they did.  I wish that elections had turned out differently.  I wish that medical reports had come out better.  I wish that my parents had lived longer so that I could have asked them better questions.  I wish that the knotted problems of racism and violence were simple to untangle.  I wish that peacemaking were as simple as posting an inspiring meme or singing a stirring song.  I wish a lot of things.

Epiphany is a good time to accept the revelation that it is not that simple.

Nothing is that simple.

The wise men came to Jerusalem.  Herod was frightened.  Herod started the hunt for the King of the Jews, and that hunt killed the children of Bethlehem (including Jesus, though that took a while) along with their families who defended them.

Such things happen.  They happen every day and everywhere.  They happen, not because God causes them to happen, but because they happen.

It’s fine if you want to spend some time explaining the real dangers of the world by dragging in free will and human sin.  Let me know when you are done.

Such explanations are illuminating in their own way, but they threaten to obscure the most important point: the world is dangerous for children and our primary task is not to explain why.  Our task is to protect the children.  In any way we can.  Period.  Perhaps in protecting the children any way we can we will make the world less dangerous for children.  But it is not that simple.  The danger is a permanent fixture in the world.  Even our acts of protection will (more than occasionally) contribute to the danger.

That does not change our responsibility to protect the children.

Or the environment.  Or the poor and powerless.  Or people who are gay, or lesbian, or transgendered, or who share any of the other characteristics that make life risky or dangerous.  Or refugees, a few of whom might turn out to be dangerous.  Or people trapped, surrounded by armed enemies, some of whom might be allies of our nation.

Our responsibility to protect, even when it is complicated, goes back all the way to the stories in Genesis that created the world and gave us tasks in that Creation.  We are to tend and care for the Creation, and that hands us the responsibility to protect.

Naïve fantasies will not help us in this task.  If anything, such fantasies will hinder our work.  If we wait around for perfect solutions, we will wait forever.  If we give up when our solutions cause their own problems, we will never accomplish anything.  If we collapse in shame when our good intentions bring flawed outcomes, we will stop learning before we discover that the achievements of a lifetime are speckled with real mistakes and missteps.

 The danger of the real world is durable.  Our great-grandparents learned that, as will our own great-grandchildren.  This may be the wisdom that the complicated wise men bring into this scene.  This may be the discovery that Epiphany brings this year.

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