A Reflection on Matthew 2:1-12 by The Rev. Vern Woodlief, Deacon
“O Little Town of Bethlehem”. . . a hymn dear to us. “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread” or, we might say, village of grainfields. . . a lowly place, yet chosen as the birthplace of Christ, who is the Bread of Life.
Matthew presents Herod, the older King, as cunning and cruel, understandably unnerved by the announcement that there is a new King.
Herod has magnificence; Christ was born in a manger.
Herod had energy; Christ was a helpless little babe.
Herod had power and used it to cruel ends; Christ had compassion and a different power.
Herod was crafty; Christ guileless.
There is lots of discussion about the Magi. They were men skilled in philosophy, medicine and natural science. All men believed in astrology. They believed they could forecast a man’s future by the star under which he was born. The Magi nightly studied the stars so when a brilliant new star appeared, it seems as if God was announcing some special thing.
The ancient world was anticipating the coming of a king. Roman historians knew of this. Herod summoned his chief priests and scribes who quoted Micah 5:2 to him. “But 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.”
Herod sent the wise men to find this child so he could come and worship him.
And this brilliant star led them. . . led them to the Light of the World.
Sam Portaro in his Brightest and Best comments on the Magi.
“The magi may not have been what we have thought them to be. The number of the magi, now accepted as three, is logical conjecture, based upon the number of gifts recorded in Matthew’s gospel, but there is no specific number in the text. Is it not possible that there were only two magi and that one brought an extra offering? Or might there have been more – say six – all of whom pitched in to pay for the three gifts? We cannot even be sure that they were kings; the term magus was often a contemptuous name for iterant magicians and entertainers.
“I rather like the notion that the magi might have been traveling entertainers, member of a class commonly accepted as fools in every sense of that word. Of course, such a possibility radically alters the asymmetry of the crèche, where the exotically adorned kings clearly upstage everyone, including the winsome animals and the Holy Family itself. In that regard, the magi are the most modern of all our religious symbols, sympathetic icons of power and wealth that draw more attention than a child born in poverty, more attention even than God.
“There is something right about a troupe of wandering artists whose whim to follow a star brings them to the cradle of Jesus. That might explain their unthinking stupidity of dropping in on Herod, asking the whereabouts of his local rival. Surely a genuinely learned person of the period would have known enough of local politics and human nature to surmise that no one in Herod’s position was going to countenance a second king within his own borders. That they may have been itinerant entertainers is also a likely explanation of their later mistrust of Herod and their ability to slip out of his territory quickly and without incident, even as they probably skipped town on other occasions when the heat was on.
“. . . There is no reason why Matthew or any other gospeler would have had cause to call these people Kings; had they been kings, would not those who recorded the story have surely marked that detail with some pride?
“Yet, we want the story the way tradition gives it to us. As it stands, the story suggests that the rich and powerful, the learned and the astute are the first to recognize and name the infant Jesus a king. This validation accords with our own belief that superior intellect and study produces insight, that trust is suspect until it is acknowledged by power and wealth. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, not only at the manger but in life.
“What is more difficult – and hence more exotic, mysterious, and wonderful – is the possibility that some simple foolish people drawn to the side of the manger, might surrender everything to the unknown child therein. How these travelers came by their gifts, we cannot know. But is it so strange that entertainers and magicians should possess gold, frankincense and myrrh? If we lavish material wealth on their modern counterparts, is it not conceivable that they might have come by those gifts in the course of their travels, as recompense for their talent to amuse?
“There is only one thing about this story that we can hold with any certainty – whoever these people were and wherever they were from, they were henceforth called “wise.” Their wisdom was not necessarily the precondition of their visitation, but it was certainly the one gift they took with them from that stable.
“Wisdom, then, is not the prerequisite to relationship with Jesus, but the product of knowing the Lord. Those who encounter God come away with more and better, than what they bring. And is this not always the case in every relationship? If we ever come to know wisdom in our relationships, are we not always wiser on the way home?”
Jesus came into the world to live and, in the end, to die for us. The gifts of the wise men were gold for a king, frankincense for a priest and myrrh for one who was to die. Even at his cradle they foretold that he was to be the true King, the perfect High Priest and the Savior of the world.
May we too, follow the brilliant light.