After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” — Matthew 2: 1-12 (NIV)
How many kings are mentioned in this story?
That’s right: two. One is named Herod. And the other, is named Jesus.
Magi were not kings. They were students of astrology, probably followers of the Zoroastrian religion, a faith which may be older even than Judaism. The Magi, then, were people of a strange faith. Wise men, yes, but not Jewish wise men. Yet in Matthew’s gospel, these are the first to pay homage to Jesus, the first to bow down and adore him. Their presence at Jesus’ cradle is an early sign, that maybe, just maybe, there is more than one pathway to truth; that maybe, just maybe, God calls to her people through traditions other than our own.
But somehow, over the years, these interfaith seekers became transformed into royalty. The first depictions of the Magi as Monarchs emerged during the fifth century; by the seventh century, they had been given names, races, and physical descriptions. Their gifts were transformed into tribute, and their adoration became the homage offered by vassals to an overlord. They were no longer pious scholars, but Royals.
Maybe the interfaith message of Matthew’s story was a bit too shocking for the medieval church, bent as it was on crusades to rid the world of eastern heathens. On the other hand, in an age of monarchs, the image of kings bowing down may have seemed equally shocking. Imagine seeing the most important national leaders of our time, humbly bowing down in true love and respect before an infant, a poor child with no wealth, no army, no territory. Imagine seeing the wealthiest executives of our time offering up their wealth, not grudgingly, but joyfully. Imagine the powerful, willingly ceding their power. Imagine this, and maybe you can imagine the kingdom of God.
What a contrast, between these three mythical kings, and the historical king mentioned in this story.
Herod the Great was a controversial ruler of Israel. He was not a descendant of the ancient royal house of David, but was rather a loyal vassal of Rome, placed on the throne by the Emperor. He undertook ambitious building projects throughout his realm which were paid for by heavy taxes, and in his later years he grew increasingly paranoid and ruthless, eventually executing two of his own sons. So when the Magi came to Herod, asking: Where is the new King of the Jews?, you can guess how Herod reacted.
There are only two kings in this story. But as far as Herod was concerned, that was one king too many.
Herod craftily tells the Magi to bring him news of the boy’s whereabouts, so that he too can pay homage. The Wise Men are not fooled, however, and return home by another way. Herod’s true intentions are revealed later in the chapter; according to Matthew, Herod sent soldiers to kill all the young children in the region of Bethlehem, lest any of them turn out to be, indeed, King of the Jews. Herod had his own position to protect. The life of a child was a small price to pay.
In modern American imagination, Kings are the subject of fairy tales, or HBO television series, or tabloid headlines. Real world “Royals” are figures of romance, benign aristocrats who spend their time getting married and raising corgis. So it makes perfect sense to us that three benevolent kings might bring beautiful gifts to a poor child.
It is the image of Herod’s ruthlessness that shocks us.
It shocks us, even though our own generation has seen ample evidence of the extent to which the powerful will go to protect their power. Herod rules still, in the kingdoms of this world. Wherever politicians cling to power at the expense of their own people, Herod rules. Wherever leaders care more about their benefactors then their constituents, Herod rules. Wherever the life of a child is dismissed as collateral damage, Herod rules.
In a world such as this, we still need to hear Matthew’s story – a story, not of three kings, but of two. The story of a king who rules by force and serves the powerful, who would sacrifice even his own children to protect his position; and the story of a very different sort of king, who rules by love and serves the powerless, who sacrifices himself to save his children.
The Magi were not Kings, but seekers. Like you. Like me. They searched heaven and earth, looking for the One worthy of their homage. And they found him – not on a great throne, not in an expensive palace, not at the head of an army, but in the eyes of a child, who looked at the world through the eyes of God.
The Magi were not kings. But they were wise, because they knew a true King when they saw one.
(for Belchertown United Church of Christ, 01.03.2015)
(photo: Liza B. Knapp)