In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And 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.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The story of the Magi has been considerably embellished in the telling. Tradition has it that there were three wise men, Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar but neither the number nor the names are supported by the text. We tend to think angels, shepherds and wise men arrive in a parade at Jesus’ birth. But the text indicates the Magi arrived two years after Jesus was born. We discover in verse 16, that “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” While there are many details of this narrative that are difficult to corroborate, it represents the simultaneous evocation of adoration and threat that was to characterize Jesus’ entire ministry.
Herod the Great was an effective, if ruthless, politician. He forged a military alliance with Rome early in his career which resulted in his appointment as the vassal king of Judea. He orchestrated major public works projects—including rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem to edify himself and to curry favor with the people. But when threatened, Herod did not hesitate to assassinate his wife as well as several of his own children to protect his position. So the narrative report of Herod’s deviousness and his murderous rage are well within what we know from secular history.
Imagine Herod’s anxiety when three Magi from a foreign land show up and ask: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Variously translated as magicians, sorcerers or wise men, outsiders were seeing what the insiders had not noticed. Herod could not afford to be blindsided. At the worst, they were announcing a direct threat—the presence of another claimant to his throne and at best, an indirect threat— a potential rallying point around which dissidents could mobilize. He could afford neither. Herod, along with the people who depended upon him for their own authority, were frightened. Their power and position were at risk..
Herod gathered his inner circle, “the chief priests and scribes of the people” who informed him the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. With that information, he summons the Magi to trick them into finding and divulging the location of the child. It would be easy enough to eliminate the threat once the child was located. Later we learn Herod was so determined to eliminate the political threat, he ordered the Massacre of the Innocents to make sure the Christ child was killed. It didn’t work out as planned but he certainly gave it his best shot.
Herod’s kingship was based upon long utilized secular values. What is most important is protecting your power and position in the world. Greatness was a function of your accomplishments, who liked you and who feared you. Lying, threats and physical intimidation were simply tools of the trade and have been used in every generation. Use of these tools has not changed much in two thousand years. Our political landscape today has hundreds of examples of misrepresentation, caricature and outright lying by politicians seeking to gain an edge.
Matthew’s gospel vividly contrasts secular kingship and authority with “child who has been born king of the Jews”. The world is never ready for the child who will lead us. It is a nice Christmas thought but in real life, we cannot honestly imagine that vulnerability could survive in the real world. Though it is certainly not new to our history, our politics are becoming so polarized that people fear to cooperate and negotiation is seen as a weakness. The political goal seems to be based more on blocking the other guy more than seeing what you can build.
Ultimately what is so damning about secular values is that we must spend our lives securing what we have and watching our back. All kingdoms based upon power must fall. Someone, eventually, will use the same tools to take what we have worked so hard to protect. There was nothing unique about Herod and he should not be demonized. We do the same things while we point our fingers at others.
Into this darkness, a little child is born and declared the king of the Jews. His very survival depends upon repeated divine intervention. Multiple dreams and angelic visitations announce and prepare for this child. Vulnerability, sacrifice and service could only survive at God’s hand. Left to human devices, Jesus would have been abandoned or dead long before his crucifixion. Jesus becomes the hope for the world and in so doing becomes the biggest threat to worldly ways. No wonder “King Herod… was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him”.
We actually know very little about the Magi. The Greek word is the source of our word magic and magician. As often as not the word is used in pejorative ways. There are people of every age that claim special knowledge of the stars and of the future. Even today, papers regularly include daily horoscopes People go to fortune tellers and palm readers. At the very least the Magi introduce mystery. They have seen a star and connect it to the history of the Jews. There is also the suggestion that the Magi were Persian and part of the Zorastian priesthood. Whoever they are, they were able to gain an audience with Herod. Herod, at least viewed them as important enough to listen to. Not every foreign visitor is accorded such respect.
In the very first chapters of his gospel, Matthew not only announces that Jesus is king of the Jews, he is announcing that peoples from other lands and other traditions recognize this special birth. This recognition gives weight and credibility to the claims of Jesus’ kingship. Luke uses a different means to communicate the specialness of Jesus’ birth. He has the heavenly hosts announcing Jesus’ birth to shepherds who then seek the Christ child. Matthew has a star announcing the birth and the Magi seeking the child.
In real life, it often takes something external for us to see what is in front of our face. How many times have you tried to explain or suggest something to your spouse only to be dismissed or ignored—until they hear it from someone else. It is frustrating, if not infuriating. It is reminiscent of “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” (Mark 6:4) The truth can be before us but we do not see or hear until someone outside of our circle points it out. The Magi were pointing out something new and momentous that the Jewish community had failed to notice. But, then again, who pays attention to births in a stable? It is obvious such a child is at best ordinary.
God makes the ordinary extraordinary. God makes the commonplace holy. These are promise the evoke adoration. To worship such a king offers hope to everyone of us but these promises profoundly threaten the ordinary ways we seek validation and meaning—our self sufficiency and self importance.
The powers of this world depend upon power and control to hold their position. Herod the Great missed his chance to kill off his threat. That job was left to his son. The light shining in the darkness promises us a better way. The way of peace is kindness and vulnerability.
The ultimate promise is that the way of peace can survive any violence—including crucifixion—because God is with us. God was with the baby Jesus and it was at God’s hand he survived. God was with Jesus as he died on a cross—yet he lives.
We belong to the Lord. Come let us adore him. Let it be so.