Last Sunday our preacher reflected on passages from Matthew 2, which tells the story of the Magi from the east. It is interesting that this record appears in the Gospel of Matthew since scholars see this book written for a Jewish audience.
Matthew 2:1-12 deliberately presents us with a specific narrative about wise men who were learned scholars and searching for a sign. Their study confirmed this sign was a star, telling them that the “King of the Jews (Matt 2:2)” was born.
The wise men assumed that the king would be born in a palace in Jerusalem. After all, Jerusalem was the home to King Herod and the presence of the Temple with all its grandeur and splendor. Herod the Great was powerful and skillful and he had numerous building projects throughout the land. Some of his work still exists today and can be seen in Caesarea, Masada, and Herodium. Despite his many talents, he was simultaneously paranoid and obsessed with anyone who might rebel or stand against him.
The announcement of the birth of the King not only troubled Herod but all of Jerusalem. He gathered all the Jewish religious leaders, chief priests and scribes, to inquire of them where the Messiah would be born. They quoted the passage from Micah 5:2 that out of Bethlehem a ruler would come out to shepherd his people. Even though there was a vibrant religious presence in Jerusalem, its leadership did not take this prophecy to heart. The priests and scribes were the ones who studied these writings so deeply but read right past these words. Ironically, it was men from afar who acted upon the words of Scripture.
Instead of welcoming and celebrating the news, Herod’s fear prompted him to seek out where the baby would be born and conspired to harm him. He perceived the birth of a Messiah as a threat to himself and his kingdom. So he sent the wise men to Bethlehem and urged them to report back to him.
When they left Jerusalem, the star reappeared to them and stood over the location of the Messiah. They worshipped and brought their gifts before Him. Instead of reporting back to Herod, the wise men chose to follow God’s instruction not to return to Jerusalem and secretly departed back to their own land.
Like the wise men, we are often attracted to political power and religious symbolism. We often expect that what God is doing in history will unfold in the popular political and religious power struggles, in the palaces and strongholds. This allows our time and attention to be consumed by them. Leaders sometimes use their power to inflict pain on people or ensure their position, privilege, and supremacy.
We can easily replicate this elitism in ourselves today, and in doing so, we might completely miss that what God is doing right now in the margins, among the powerless and the vulnerable.
In reality, the wise men had to discover for themselves that God’s work took place in an obscure location, one void of the glory and majesty expected to receive a king. In the narrative of the birth of Jesus and the Magi, we see that the King would not be born in a palace, but in a manager in a lowly town. It was there the Magi came to glorify and worship him because they knew that he was inaugurating a different Kingdom.
In this Kingdom, the King wants to serve, heal and embrace. This King calls and invites enemies to dine with Him. The challenge for us today here in the land is this: Can we discern what God is doing in history and not be seduced by political and religious powers that lead us astray? Can we follow the teaching of the King to serve and celebrate with those who are powerless? Amidst the noise and voices that echo around us, can we invite those who are excluded, and discern what God is doing?
By Salim J. Munayer, Ph.D.