Saturday, 27 December 2014

The (So-Called) Three Kings in Matthew's Nativity Story

Who were “the three kings” who came to worship Jesus? A few meditative reflections prompted by a comment in a sermon preached by Oliver O'Donovan and reprinted in The Word in Small Boats (Eerdmans, 2010), pages 16-18, on the wise men as intruders.

First, (verse 1) they seem to be the wrong people from the wrong place.
Magi from the East = magicians / astrologers, likely from Arabia or maybe Babylonia or Persia. The translation “wise men” may be an attempt to make them more respectable than they would have been in the eyes of loyal Bible readers at the time (Daniel 1:20; Isaiah 47:12-13). And note that the only other reference in the NT to someone of that profession is in Acts 13 (verses 6 and 8) and it’s not complimentary.
It is more than 1200 km from Babylon to Jerusalem, and another 800 km, if you came from further East, say Esfahan; in these cases it would have been a long, difficult, perilous and expensive journey. Even from Arabia it is a major journey. 
We, too, may consider some fellow worshippers the wrong sort of people from the wrong place. This report questions such an attitude and maybe encourages us to remember that for some the journey to Christian worship has been a very difficult one.

Secondly, (verses 1-3) they seem to be asking questions in the wrong place.
What are they doing in Jerusalem? Maybe their reasoning got in the way (“surely a child born to be king of the Jews must be in Jerusalem!”). Maybe the star had left them to their own devices for a moment, or maybe the star first led them to Jerusalem in order to get another part of the story going.
Certainly the confrontation with Herod highlights some of the implications of the kingship of Jesus. A different sort of king but one that does threaten (and frighten) the existing political establishment.
We may be tempted to put Jesus in a separate box, reserved for Sundays maybe. No, he must affect everything everywhere, not only in Bethlehem but also in Jerusalem.

Thirdly, they arrive in Bethlehem in a roundabout way and apparently at the wrong time.
If they had been truly wise, they could have gone to the Jewish Scriptures in the first place to find out that they had to go to Bethlehem. No need for a star, king Herod  and chief priests and scribes. Ok, they did need the star for the timing of the fulfilment of the prophecy. Except that they arrive not to find a newborn but a “child” (verses 9 and 11) already one year or so old. Too late to congratulate the parents on the birth of a child; too early to see the child enthroned.
But then our own journey to Christ was likely roundabout and in a sense we, too, arrive in the midst of time. The decisive event has happened (not only the birth but for us also the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ) but we do not see Jesus enthroned yet. The magi did not come to congratulate the parents but to offer homage to Jesus and it’s not too late for that. They offer homage to one who does not yet command homage.
We are in a similar situation. We have better reason, and maybe even a command, to pay homage to Jesus but he does not yet command worship with force. He invites worship and like the magi we need to trust the testimony before we see the full reality of his kingship and indeed divinity.

Fourthly, they are apparently doing the wrong thing.
They bring gifts. They are the only ones in the biblical nativity stories to bring gifts. And gifts which most people consider to be not particularly practical. In other words, they are responsible for the commercialisation of Christmas. All these gifts – all these things we don’t truly need…
I’m of course not entirely serious. Gifts that communicate joy are great, and the less they are needed the more they speak of grace. But gifts can be problematic.
If you’ve seen the Christmas Special of the BBC drama series Call the Midwife, you will have seen how Cynthia struggles with her call to the religious life in Nonnatus House, a High Anglican mission in the East End of London. She wants to become one of the sisters, but simply can't understand why Christ would want her when, as she admits, “I have nothing to give, nothing to sacrifice, nothing to offer up in exchange for all his love for me.” But that is grace, and we are closer to grasping it, if we realise that there is in reality nothing we can give Jesus that is not already his.
He could just take all the gold, frankincense and myrrh of the world, all the time and money we have, and he would not even need to ask our permission, but he loves to receive them as a gift because at its best giving and receiving presents is about relationships.

Finally, they are apparently still the wrong people on the wrong track.
If Jesus is “born king of the Jew” (verse 2), the Messiah (verse 4) “who is to shepherd my people Israel” (verse 6), what’s that got to do with people who are not Jews? What’s their relationship? And if they have a relationship with this king, why go back to their own country at all?
Matthew puts a lot of emphasis on Jesus being the son of David, the son of Abraham. It’s because the promises belong to the Jews but Gentiles can be fellow-heirs. And that is of course very encouraging for us who are not Jews. We don’t have the first claim on Jesus but we, too, have a claim. And we don’t have to become Jewish, we don’t have to be in a particular place with a particular people to belong to king Jesus. From now on every journey we make can be a route taken with Christ.