During the Advent season, we are introduced to many interesting characters: Mary, Joseph, Anna, Elizabeth and Zacharias, Anna and Simeon, John the Baptist. Most of these are in Luke’s Gospel, but Matthew’s Gospel gives us a different perspective and some new characters. Matthew 12:1-12 introduces several kings—some wise Gentile “kings” and one paranoid king.
The individuals we call the “three kings” or Magi came from east of Palestine, probably Persia or Babylon (present day Iraq or Iran). We don’t really know how many there were; the number three comes from the three gifts they carried. Although commonly placed at the stable and depicted in Nativity scenes, they came long after Jesus’ birth (probably two years later).
These men (and they were most likely men although they did ask for directions) were part of a unique group. They were astrologers, men of wisdom, and advisors to the king of Babylon.
In those times, astronomy and astrology made up one not two disciplines. They were of a priestly class, probably practitioners of Zoroastrianism.
These proto-scientists connected great happenings in the heavens to great events on earth (and vice versa). In the ancient world, people spent a lot of time observing the night sky, making up stories about the stars and the constellations, and observing the celestial movements. The star they saw could have been a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn or a supernova. We don’t know.
Although they were Gentiles and practitioners of a pagan religion, they felt compelled to come and worship the new King of the Jews.
Herod the King was as wicked as the men from the east were wise. He was from Edom and was not a Jew. He contributed enormous amounts of money to complete the Temple at Jerusalem (money he gained from exorbitant taxation) and played the role of a faithful Jew, but he was more concerned about embracing the Greco-Roman culture and a lavish lifestyle.
Herod was paranoid, but he felt even more threatened as he got older. He killed three of his sons because he feared them as successors. Augustus Caesar is reported to have said, “Better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” The word “disturbed” in the text might be better translated “terrified.” His worst fears were coming true.
Herod did not know his Jewish prophecy, so he consulted the chief priests and scribes. They identified the birthplace of the new king from Micah 5:2 as Bethlehem, only a few miles from Jerusalem. Herod was treacherous. Despite his statement that he too wanted to worship the new king, he did not want to worship but to destroy him.
The men from the east did find the child, deliver their gifts as an act of worship, and were divinely compelled to return home without letting Herod know that they had found Jesus. Although the text says that they did so because they were warned in a dream, perhaps they were very wise after all.
What do we learn from this account?
First, the story emphasizes that Jesus is both a divine and human figure that even Gentiles worship, a major theme of Matthew’s gospel. Pious Gentiles recognized Jesus as a king at his birth even if Jewish religious leaders seemed to fear him.
Second, there is a big difference between the one who had been made king and the one who was born a king. Herod had used all of his connections and power to act like a king, now he was upstaged by a real king. Despite his treachery, Herod would not win out. Despite the slaughter of innocent children to protect his rule, he would die and Jesus would live. Herod’s kingdom was earthly but the Kingdom of Jesus is eternal.
Finally, the wise men were like many people today--they were very spiritual but were still looking for more. This is a good reminder that we need to look for opportunities to share our faith with those who are seekers, nurturing the spark of truth that they perceive.
(This blog was originally posted on December 29, 2013.)