The Magi Don’t Belong in This Story

A blog for Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, which occurs twelve days after Christmas on January 6th

The mystifying magi appear in just one Gospel, Matthew, Chapter 2. That doesn’t give us a lot to work with, and much of what we may believe about these sages is myth or conjecture. For example, Scripture says nothing about camels or the number of magi. Did you know they followed the star sign for two whole years, finding baby Jesus in a house, not a stable? And they were not kings. Because I have a habit of trying to see myself in all the characters of Scripture, I want to look at the little we know about these shadowy figures and what they might tell me about myself.

The magi were gentile astrologers, foreigners in possession of great material wealth. The word “magus” can mean wise man, magician, advisor or even wizard and comes from the Persian language. These mystery men traveled a long way to bring their inappropriate gifts to an anonymous child in a backwater village. There is no specific prophecy of these messianic visitors in the Bible nor even of the star which brought them. The magi don’t belong in this story. And neither do I.  

The magi were rich, and this story is about the poor.

Whether Christ’s visitors used their own resources or worked for a rich benefactor, they possessed the means to leave their homes for over two years on a romantic quest and then return again. They (or their unmentioned pack animals and servants) brought rare and valuable gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the Christmas story no one and nothing else lives in a world of wealth. Mary delivered her Son in an animal stall. Joseph was a common carpenter who offered a poor man’s gift at Jesus’s consecration in the Temple (Luke 2:24). Christ came to earth on a mission to and among the poor (see Luke 4:18, II Cor. 8:9, etc.). The magi don’t belong in this story because they were rich.

The magi were gentiles, and this story is about Israel.

The wise men were not Israelites. They implied their non-Jewishness when asking Herod about, “the king of the Jews,” and their profession was outside the usual range of Jewish vocations. They were visitors from a far country and a foreign culture, outsiders to the story they were helping to write. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, the long-awaited savior of God’s conquered but chosen people. Jesus Himself proclaimed his responsibility to “the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). Even if they happened to be Jewish converts, these magicians were not of the house of Israel. The magi don’t belong in this story because they were gentiles.

The magi were influential, and this story is about the powerless.

As well-resourced astronomers or astrologers (the two studies were often one discipline in the ancient world), the wise men served as advisors to the powerful. They held influence over important decision-makers. While they did not, apparently, seek out King Herod, news of their mission carried to him, and he took it very seriously. The words of a common tourist would not have aroused so much concern. The magi were connected. But Jesus did not come to the powerful. He invited shepherds to His birthday party. He touched lepers and consoled prostitutes. Jesus came to the poor, the oppressed, the humble, the outcasts. The magi don’t belong in this story because they were powerful.

I don’t belong in God’s story for the same reasons.

Anyone living in a western country today, even in the bottom 5%, “is richer than 68 percent of the world’s inhabitants,” according to Forbes. I can rightly say that compared to everyone in the world now, as well as those who lived in Biblical times, I am rich. It is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for me to be saved. I am also a gentile. As far as I know there is no Jewish blood in my veins. God’s story is not the story of my people. And I am connected, even powerful. There is the fact that I am white, which unfairly advantages me, giving me social power I do not earn or even understand. My American passport, the technology I wield, the political and vocational connections I could muster, all give me more influence than most in the world possess.

Like the magi, there is no reason I should know anything about Christ, that He should get my attention or I should get His. I don’t belong in His story. And yet, according to God’s great mercy, He mysteriously chose me out of nowhere, guided me to His Son and bids me worship Him. I don’t want to be like ‘the three kings’ because they were rich, powerful gentiles. I want to be like them because they were willing to risk their privileges and step outside their heritage for something much more important. Against all odds, they were chosen to worship King Jesus, and “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matt. 2:10).


Related material:

The Mysterious Magi
We Three Kings
Crowded, Dirty, Humble, Holy

Talking to Stan

Stan, my wonderful father-in-law, just put his garden to bed for the winter. There is nothing he loved more than driving his tractor around the farm on a fall day in Michigan. So it was both fitting and beautiful that he took his last breath doing just that. In fact, he died between sentences, while talking with a close friend.

This good man was the nearest thing I had to a father in my adult life. He was a man of integrity who loved God, a patriot in the best sense, a warrior who shed tears when his grandchildren left after a visit. He loved and cared for his wife of 65 years, a spry and feisty centenarian who can no longer live on her own. She and I are puttering around the house together now, waiting for a room to open in a nearby assisted-living facility. As I search for missing items, calm repeated fears and welcome a parade of visitors, I find myself talking to Stan.

Sometimes I ask his advice obliquely (what would Stan have done about this?) and sometimes directly (Stan, please help me figure this out). I tell him how grateful I am for the plans he made, the family he raised and the legacy he left. I grumble at him for his packrat ways and for hiding his wife’s driver license too well. I’m a bit astonished at myself for doing this. I don’t know whether he hears me, and so far, he hasn’t answered back.

Many otherwise sane people have talked to their dead throughout history. Some have institutionalized the practice as prayer or ancestor worship. I understand the impulse. My love and my frustrations are real. They want a target to aim at. Someone who cares deeply about me now sees further than I can. Someone in heaven has the wisdom I need. Stan, as I knew him, was both strong and tender. I trusted him. He could understand my situation as no one else could. So I talk to him.

I realize I should be talking to God like this all the time. My love and even my frustrations have been invited by the King of Everything. Someone Who cares deeply about me sees further than I can. Someone in heaven has the wisdom I need. The Lord God is both strong and tender, and I can trust Him. He understands this and every situation as no one else could. So why am I talking to Stan?

It’s easier to feel warm about a physical person you have hugged and laughed with than a Spirit you’ve never heard or touched or seen, I suppose. But I don’t want my memory of Stan to be a substitute for the reality of God. Instead, I want to understand God better through my love for Stan. I want to know my Jesus as the warm, wise, ready heart on the other end of my conversations.

I don’t think it’s wrong to talk to Stan even though he’s dead (as long as he’s not talking to me), but it is more effective and more real to speak with the living Christ. It is not Stan who has what I need, loves me the most or intercedes for me with God. His death cannot yield those benefits. But his life is still pointing me to the One whose death ensures that Stan and I will sit down together again. There are so many things I look forward to in heaven, but one of the best will surely be talking to Stan.

“Christ is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:25)


Related Content:

The Mother-Love of God

When my grandfather was a grown man, he experienced a toothache so painful that he tried to climb into his mother’s lap. While that wouldn’t have made the pain go away, he knew that it would bring him another sort of comfort. It seems we never completely lose the desire to be embraced by a mother’s love.

My grandfather had grown too big for climbing into laps. Sometimes, we have the same problem seeking comfort from God. Our thoughts concern our problems – how to fix them or avoid them. Psalm 131 can teach us another way.

It bears King David’s name, and we know him as a man of action but not in this poem. This psalm appears in the middle of the Psalms of Ascent, the songs of a long pilgrimage toward Zion. In the midst of the journey, we may need to stop and rest as David did. We could imagine him alone in the wilderness, done with fighting and fleeing, seeking only the peace of God’s company.  To that end he writes of a return to dependence, a return to stillness, a return to childhood.

In distressing circumstances adults tend to cast about anxiously for a solution or look for someone else to blame. Psalm 131:1 teaches us to set aside these prideful thoughts, acknowledging that solutions are beyond us and that we are as fallen as the next sinner. A child is content to simply be held. A “weaned child,” as described in verse 2, might be three or four years old, still small but also independent. Such a child would no longer cry and look for milk from her mother’s breast, but she would be satisfied with the warmth of her arms and the protection of her presence as she sings her baby to sleep. That is the aspect of God which David wants us to experience, the encircling, restful and gentle mother-love of God.

We can only experience that stillness if we deliberately set aside the cares of the day and our attempts to fix them. We can only do that in a quiet space where nothing else intrudes. We can only do that when God alone is all we want, not the things He might give us. The Lord of the universe gave us birth and nurture and sustenance. He proved His incredible love for us once and for all on the cross. He has all the time in the world to sit and hold us in His arms. Let us not wait until pain finally drives us there. Climb up into His lap in humble dependence and enjoy His love today.


Questions:

  1. What present circumstance makes you most long for a mother’s loving comfort?
  2. Take five minutes right now to meditate on this psalm. Try to sit quietly in God’s lap, resting in His arms and His love. If you find yourself climbing down again, don’t be frustrated; just notice it, and go back to sit with Him a little longer.

This post was first published in 2013.