by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
The reading for Sunday, January 3, 2016:
I write these words with the song "We Three Kings of Orient Are" in my head. The 3 wise men have such a place in our collective imagination that it’s interesting to return to the actual story that only appears in Matthew. What a strange tale!
Notice that it’s not 3 wise men, but a group of wise men from the East. Some have speculated that they were scholars of some sort or astrologers or maybe kings from a distant land. Clearly they are men of power and wealth. They can afford to travel, and they can afford to bring lavish gifts.
It’s no wonder that the wise men from the east would come to one of the population centers of the Roman empire looking for the King of the Jews. It’s an interesting statement that they assume that they’re looking for someone who has political power, and thus, they head for Herod's palace. Those of us who know the rest of the story already know that they couldn’t be more mistaken.
Herod is also a man of power and wealth, but he reacts very differently from the wise men of the east. The wise men come a great distance to be part of the story. Herod, too, could have participated in the Good News and the work of Kingdom building. God wouldn't boycott him, just because he was a tool of the Roman empire. God can use any of us, no matter who we've been or where we are.
But Herod has no interest in hearing God’s invitation. Notice that not only is Herod troubled, but all of Jerusalem. Herod consults not only his own staff, but also the chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem.
Herod’s reaction shouldn’t surprise us. He’s not a Roman emperor, after all. He rules only as long as his Roman overlords say that he can. He’s already feeling threatened, and then wise men from the East appear, searching for a ruler who isn’t Herod. We may say that we’d have reacted differently, that we’d have joined the quest and rejoiced when we found Jesus, but we’re likely kidding ourselves.
What does it mean that the good news of the birth of Jesus comes not only to shepherds (in Luke’s Gospel, not Matthew’s), but also to strangers from a distant, non-Jewish country? From the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, we see the inclusivity of the incarnation of God. And from the beginning, we see the rejection of God’s invitation, from Herod onward through all of Jerusalem.
Jesus escapes death by government hands in this story, but again, those of us who know the whole story know that Jesus can only dodge the authorities for so long. Before Jesus opens his mouth, his trajectory places him in direct conflict with the ruling government. His very birth threatens the establishment, as will the rest of his life.
I think of that simplistic bumpersticker: “Wise men still seek him.” But we shouldn’t forget that the quest of the wise men also puts them at severe risk as they meet with Herod, who might have easily had them killed for their impudence of searching for a King of the Jews that wasn’t sanctioned by the state. Indeed, he likely would have killed them, had he not needed them for intelligence gathering.
Wise men and women do indeed still seek Jesus, but we often underestimate the risk. Jesus doesn’t come to occupy a tidy corner of our lives. Jesus doesn’t come to invite us to lunch once or twice a month.
No, God comes to live with us, in all of our brokenness and messiness. God comes to turn our lives upside down—and to turn us around. God has a very grand plan for creation, and for all of the individuals inside of that creation. A life spent searching for Jesus may well set us on a collision course with everything that our culture tells us we should be searching for.
The world tells us to seek wealth; God tells us that we have more than we need and that we should give it all away. The world tells us to seek education; Jesus comes to give us a very different education, one based on compassion and sharing. The world tells us to seek power that only empires can maintain; Jesus shows us the brutality of that kind of power.
Daily life often works to make us more like Herod than the wise men in this story. We miss the miraculous as it twinkles at us, daring us to see, inviting us on a marvelous journey. Let this be the year that we see the portents and the signs, the year that we say yes to God.