One day I was in the tourist information office just inside Jerusalem’s Old City, at Jaffa Gate, when a young tourist asked, “How do I walk to Bethlehem?”
I took notice. Nice idea, I thought.
But I was shocked by the answer: “Oh, you can’t do that. You can’t walk to Bethlehem.”
The tourist walked out of the office shaking his head. I was right behind him.
I took him aside and pointed across the Hinnom Valley. “That road will take you straight to Bethlehem. It’s only eight kilometers.”
The magi in Matthew’s Gospel, like this young tourist, arrive in Jerusalem, thinking that someone in the city should know the whereabouts of this newborn king.
What a magnificent sight these astrophysicists, scholars of the stars, must have been with their entourage. Those magi, stargazers, singing, field and fountain, moor and mountain….
But Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth tells us nothing about singing magi or angel choirs. He tells us instead about political intrigue. Secret negotiations. Refugees fleeing for their lives. The killing of children. The story is downright chilling.
Except we know there’s a twist because of the question the magi ask: “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.”
Fear on the throne
Let’s imagine ourselves in Jerusalem’s marketplace on the day the magi walk into town. What do we hear? What’s Herod going to do next? Where will he build his next fortress? Whom will he eliminate? Will Herod finally seek professional help for his paranoia?
And then, this one – the one that makes all heads turn, that sends informants scurrying to the royal palace: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.”
In no time, the coffee shops would be buzzing.
You’re sitting in a back corner of Judah’s Falafel Shop playing backgammon. All around you are murmurs: “Who’s frightened? Why?”
You know why. Herod was crazy, having murdered his own two sons and his wife Mariamne.
“King of the Jews?” Sounds like insurrection. A usurper to the throne.
So Herod acts quickly. “Calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.”
This is no theological discussion. It’s political and motivated by fear. Herod dominates all political and religious institutions. (It is rumoured that he even disguised himself and mingled with the people in order to find out for himself what they thought about him.)
If Herod is afraid, everyone is afraid.
This is not an optional invitation. Memo: “For those interested, please come to my office to discuss possible birthplace of the Messiah.”
And so, leaders play it safe. They quote Old Testament texts. They blend together Micah 5:2 and, oddly, 2 Samuel 5:2. “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.”
They give the standard answer, or so one might think. Herod would never catch the allusion in the last line of their biblical quotation, “who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
But some would have heard echoes of Ezekiel 34: “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves. Should not shepherds feed the sheep?… You have not strengthened the weak…. You have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.”
We get the hint. Talking about a “King of the Jews” means trouble. So Herod secretly calls the magi to a meeting.
Worship on the ground
After asking a few questions, he smiles politely and suggests, “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.”
This sounds like what happens in one of those old fairy tales. The wicked king pretends to go along with the plan, but we know he’s plotting something sinister.
But the magi suspect nothing. “When they had heard the king, they set out;… When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and worshipped him.”
The first emotion in the story was Herod’s fear. Now, by contrast, the magi are overwhelmed with joy. They fall to the ground and worship. The NRSV of Matthew 2:11 reads, “They knelt down and paid him homage.”
It sounds like quite a dignified scene. But elsewhere in Matthew these words are freighted with meaning.
Twice in this text we find the verb “pay homage.” But in verse 11, the words are exactly the same as those used by the devil in the temptation story in chapter 4: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.
The point Matthew makes here, and in the temptation story, is that this act of “kneeling and paying homage,” or “falling down and worshipping,” is about recognizing what claims our allegiance.
We could linger here, but the story goes on. “Opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” Matthew knows that after Jesus is born, it’s no longer politics as usual.
Isn’t it ironic that those in power, who know the Scriptures, don’t follow through to the discovery because they are too caught up in self-interest? And so they miss the point.
The overwhelming joy of the magi could be theirs. But for Herod and the religious establishment, too much is at stake.
Fear leads to holding on, to grasping. Joy leads to giving away, to letting go.
The first to let go
Isn’t it strange that these astrologers respond so readily to the signs God gives them? Maybe they are the first, of whom Jesus speaks later in the Gospel, who will come from the east and the west to eat at Abraham’s table (8:11).
Maybe the magi are the first who demonstrate what it means to seek first the kingdom of heaven (Mathew 6:33). To give away resources for the sake of the kingdom. To recognize that letting go of abundance is the first and necessary response to the joy of discovering the shepherd of Israel.
Jesus, in the end, doesn’t escape the fate of the children killed by Herod. Pilate, the Roman governor, also asks about the “King of the Jews.”
T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” describes the visitors from the east who see “three trees on the low sky” and “six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver.” Matthew, it seems, wants the end foreshadowed at the beginning (ICC, 254).
Herod and Pilate, along with the religious establishment, have it all wrong. This king comes, as Matthew puts it, “humble and riding on a donkey.” This king does not assume politics as usual.
“It’s easy to get to Bethlehem,” I said to the young tourist in Jerusalem. (This was before the separation wall.)
I should have added: “But look out for Herod in all his disguises. He wants to keep things as they are.
“And when you get to Bethlehem, be prepared to be surprised by joy. What you discover…no – whom you discover – will reorder your loyalties forever. It happened to the magi; it can happen to you.”
[Gordon Matties is professor emeritus of biblical and theological studies at Canadian Mennonite University. He attends River East Church, Winnipeg.