January 14, 2015
I am indebted to my friend’s pastor for the introduction to today’s portion of the Christmas story.
In his Christmas sermon this year, my friend’s pastor began the story of the Magi by saying thoughtfully, “The story of the Wise Men—the Magi—reminds me of Paul Newman.”
Listening to the tape, I can hear an initial moment of surprise—Paul Newman and the Magi?!!?—then a soft ripple of laughter spread through the congregation.
The pastor paused, then continued.
“You may remember the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Paul Newman was Butch Cassidy, and Robert Redford played the part of the Sundance Kid. The two of them were on the run, barely ahead of the posse determined to catch them and bring them to justice. In numerous scenes, Butch and Sundance pause, look back and see the posse behind them in the near distance, then Paul Newman (Butch) says each time to Sundance, ‘Who are those guys?’”
The pastor chuckled, then added, “When I think of the Magi, I find myself saying, like Paul Newman, ‘Who are those guys anyway?’”
Actually, we don’t know how many of them there were (the image of three kings with specific names is pure fantasy). We know that they were political advisors (think State Department, diplomatic envoys, ambassadors and associated staff), not royalty.
It is likely that as representatives of their government that they had journeyed four to six hundred miles across the desert coming to Jerusalem from the area commonly identified as Persia.
Near-eastern politics were likely as conflicted and unstable at that time as they are now. Then, as now, keeping close watch on political loyalties (at home and abroad) would have been politics as usual. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” as Shakespeare noted. Both Herod and emissaries from “the East” would be pointedly curious about a report that a new king had been born, no matter how unlikely the report might initially seem.
Serious official study of prophetic documents was common (any clue pointing to possible future competition was worth attention). Comets, meteors and other stellar phenomena were regarded as signs of the rise and fall of kings and their competitors, and study of the stars was, consequently, serious science.
The “intelligence section” of the “state department” of this “eastern” country, so to speak, was aware of a prophecy in old Jewish documents about a king coming to restore David’s throne, so when their star scientists reported an unexplained stellar disturbance possibly confirming this prophecy, a delegation was sent to investigate.
The delegation stopped first in Jerusalem and asked at Herod’s court (proper protocol) where to find this new king.
This was a politically-incorrect explanation for any visitor to give to Herod, but, cleverly, it was, at the same time, a “scientific” reason that Herod would have difficulty rejecting.
“We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him,” the Magi explained. They were correct in their anticipation of Herod's response. Herod dealt cautiously with this reported star business.
However, canny old fox, Herod immediately called in his own scholars and prophets and demanded that they tell him exactly where this new king was to be born.
“In Bethlehem,” they replied specifically, immediately, without hesitation. No research was needed; they knew, and cited their sources by memory.
Armed with this information, Herod then sent the Magi to Bethlehem with a socially acceptable explanation for his interest in the matter. “Go find this child,” Herod instructed the visitors, “and when you’ve found him, come tell me, and I will come and worship him too.”
So the Magi set out to find the child, grateful, I'm sure, at having safely departed from Herod’s court despite the unpleasant news they had brought him.
At this point the Matthew text explains simply, without detail, that the Magi were again guided by “the star” to the house where Mary and the child was.
There is space here in the text for two possible scenarios: Mary, Joseph and the child were still in Bethlehem, and the Magi found them there. Or, alternatively, Mary, Joseph and the child had returned by this time to Nazareth to Joseph’s house there. By means of the star, the Magi were given guidance that led them to Nazareth, not Bethlehem as Herod had directed.
I am convinced that the house Matthew refers to was in Nazareth; I think that Matthew’s account of subsequent events fits more logically into that option. But the essential point is this: having found the child, having worshipped him and given him gifts, the Magi then received further instruction in a dream. Do not return to Herod, they were warned: go home another way. Then, having been warned, they did so.
When Herod discovered what they had done, he was furious—insanely so. But that is next week’s story. We are well into Epiphany now, and poised for the flight into Egypt.
But think with me about the Paul Newman question: who are these guys anyway?
Factually, they are part of the story of God’s great promise keeping, foretold by the prophets and announced by the Bethlehem angels—that Messiah was a gift of great joy to all peoples.
In a sense, these were our delegates (representative of us Gentiles) who came to greet the child. It is interesting to think that factually Jesus may have been a toddler by the time the Magi’s long journey had reached Joseph’s house.
But whatever questions there may be regarding the timetable, we know that foreign visitors, informed by the sacred texts of God’s chosen people, and led by the sign given them, Gentile God-followers came also, bringing their gifts, acknowledging the new King who had come.
I don’t like nativity scenes in which camels look over Joseph’s shoulder and kings with crowns kneel with the shepherds around the feeding trough where a blond baby sleeps.
That muddles up the story. I particularly dislike those kings and camels in the stable because those kings make nonsense of my part of the story.
In the millenniums that have passed since God’s miraculous entry into human experience, many of us from far, faraway places have come to celebrate the birth of the child who came to be God-with-us and our King.
Thinking with you that one of the men managing the camels for those distinguished visitors may have been my great grandfather (well, likely a hundred greats). I want the Christmas story to show that some of my people believed too, and came a long way to bring a gift to the King.
Next week to Egypt.