Not all outcasts are poor. Or, perhaps more accurately, not all poverty is for lack of riches. It might be easy to read the Christmas story and focus on figures like the shepherds or the manger’s filthy hay. But sometimes the spiritually poor neither dress in rags nor smell like sheep.
Matthew’s biography of Jesus was written through a strongly Jewish lens. It’s why he begins with a thorough tracing of Jesus’ ancestry, emphasizing Jesus’ connection to Abraham as well as establishing his legal claim to David’s throne. But one of the features of Matthew’s gospel is that Jesus offers God’s kingdom to God’s chosen people—the Jews—and they not only reject his offer, but crucify his Son.
So it should come as no surprise, then, that at the beginning of the gospel we find this pattern in miniature, with the unlikely story of the visit of the magi.
WE THREE KINGS?
Admittedly, we have romanticized this story a bit. Well, actually a great deal, and from a surprisingly early date. As early as the second century A.D. Christian writers sought to add details and to embellish the story of the wise men to such a degree that it might be helpful to strip away the image cast by our nativity figurines and look at what the Bible (and ancient culture) has to teach us. Here is how Matthew describes the event:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1-2)
Who were these “wise men?”? The term is magi—or magus, if there’s only one—a term that comes from the Greek magos meaning something like “sorcerer” or “magician.” The magi were a special priestly caste from the east, usually identified with Persia and Babylon. If you asked the Greek-speakers of Matthew’s day, they would have told you that the magi were well-respected not only for their wisdom, but also their ability to interpret dreams, tell the future, and even demonstrate magical powers. The magi were regarded as something of the “Jedi Knights” of the ancient world.
But of course, if you asked the average Jew, they would have described the magi as brutish and vulgar, known as enemies of God’s people since Daniel’s day (Daniel 2:2, 10).
Were there really three of them? Not likely. Matthew seems to hint that the city was somehow aware of them, and they attracted the attention of Herod. It’s likely that these men traveled in a whole caravan—both for style as well as security. They were, of course, men of wealth; there’s evidence that points to these men occupying positions of political influence in their ancient settings.
What about this star? Though the wise men quote from Micah, it’s unclear that they shared anything of Israel’s hopes for a Savior. No; it’s more likely that these wise men were familiar with ancient accounts of stars and signs pointing toward the arrival of kings.
But what about the star itself? Obviously, it was no ordinary star. A comet is a possibility, but Halley’s comet passed overhead in 12-11 B.C., at least five years before Jesus’ birth. Others have speculated that the star they saw was actually the brightness caused by the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn. Still others have thought that they may have been witnessing a supernova—a distant explosion of a star that would have been visible in the night sky. Or, perhaps it’s best to think of this star as having only a supernatural, divine origin. Because if you were reading this story as a faithful Jew, what might this remind you of? When God’s people fled Egypt during the exodus, how were they guided? The star guiding the wise men to Jesus seems parallel to the pillar of fire guiding God’s people. Only this time, the star is guiding men who would be unlikely visitors to Jesus’ side.
A KING’S JEALOUSY
Again, the journey of these magi would have attracted considerable attention, not least of which was from the king himself:
3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. (Matthew 2:3-9a)
The combination of prophecies about Judah and the rumors of stars as royal heralds certainly stirred jealousy in the heart of Herod. We know from the pages that follow this story that Herod became so jealous that he took the lives of all young boys under age two—only a miraculous intervention spared the life of Jesus.
WISE MEN AND THEIR WORSHIP
It doesn’t seem as if the magi were phased—or even aware—of Herod’s jealousy. They continued onward to meet the child Jesus:
And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:9b-12)
We’re meant to understand that the magi did not find Jesus in the manger, as the shepherds had. Most likely Jesus was around 1 or 2 years old when they finally reached him.
The gifts they brought were fit for a king in every sense of the word. Gold seems obvious enough, but frankincense and myrrh were both fine and exotic perfumes that were deeply valuable in the ancient world. It’s true that each of these elements had distinct religious usage, but it’s more likely that these magi intended to present these treasures as an homage to the newborn king.
But why? As we said earlier, the Jews didn’t look on the magi fondly; they viewed them as enemies. What’s going on here?
Matthew is trying to illustrate a point: while Jesus’ own people rejected him, strangers from far away drew near to him. It’s not clear whether the magi came to anything that resembles saving faith, but what is clear is that for at least this moment, the magi rightly acknowledged Jesus’ unique place as king.
This means that not all forms of poverty are material. Some live in a deep, spiritual poverty that comes from denying the true authority of Jesus. Jesus’ kingdom turns everything upside down. The religious crowds reject Jesus; the outsiders praise Jesus. Which are we? We may not follow a star, but God has laid a path that we might continually come to him, to bow our knee, to worship. While others might reject him as imposter or crucify him as criminal, we crown him as king.