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

2 thoughts on “The Magi Don’t Belong in This Story

  1. Great insight Louise! The Magi do seem to be the misfits in the story and it would be great to know more of their backstory. What a powerful testimony that God would call the rich and the poor alike to come follow him.

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