Wise Men, Wise Women
Our text for this morning is Matthew 2:1-12. Hear now the Word of God.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
This is the Word of God for the people of God.
When we look at the manger scene, we see Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the shepherds. We understand much about these particular people. In these twelve verses from Matthew 2, we also learn of wise men known as the Magi, coming to give respect to this babe. Who are these men? Why are they a part of the story? Why do they appear only in Matthew’s Gospel and nowhere else? Why do they make an appearance on the stage of history and then disappear into oblivion, never to be heard from again?
Who are these strangers from the East who travel to see Jesus? First, we know that the men probably did not arrive on the very day Jesus was born. At our home, as here at the church, these men are positioned at the stable along with the other participants of the nativity narrative. All of the figurines in the display have been present since the November Hanging of the Green service here at Morningside. You will notice that Verse 11 says that the wise men actually found the family in a house, not in a stable. By all accounts, the Magi arrived sometime after the birth. That is fine. Every guest does not have to arrive on exactly the same day. In fact, that is preferable sometimes, especially for a new mother.
The very term Magi, a Latin word, is borrowed from a Greek word borrowed from a Persian word. The term appears in the very strange religion known as Zoroastrianism. Those who were a part of this religion gazed into the heavens, analyzing what they saw and considering them a mirror, reflecting important events occurring on earth. The new star, this heavenly body shining so brightly in Bethlehem, meant that an important personage of royal birth had been born there. These Magi who traveled to Bethlehem were probably priests of the Zoroastrian religion. They had concluded that they could locate this person of royal birth by following that star. The New Testament uses the word Magi to identify these men. Scriptures from Isaiah and the psalms call these men kings, saying that kings will kneel before the Messiah.
From what country or area did these wise men come? Traditions about their country of origin vary. Some say they came from Babylonia, some say from India, and some say from Persia. Others say they came from all three places. Regardless, the Magi came a long distance to see this child. Traditionally, their names, which are foreign to us, are Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar. One historian says that they may have traveled the ancient silk road all the way from Islamabad in Pakistan and that they passed through many important cities on their way to Bethlehem.
Why were these men so interested in the star? Though astrology is no longer considered a science, it was in their day and time. These men of great learning, men of wisdom, gazed into the heavens, looking for signs of what was happening on the earth. Evidence from Iran suggests a tradition that wise men, Magi, followed stars that they felt predicted the birth of an important ruler.
As odd as these men are, their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for a baby are equally strange. On the one hand, we could say they are precious gifts of tribute, ordinary for a person of royalty. These gifts are important in their own right, but it has been suggested that the gifts might also have had spiritual meaning. William Barkley helps us understand the spiritual meaning behind the gifts. The recipient of the gift of gold, Jesus, will be known as the “King and Kings and Lord of Lords.” Frankincense, appropriate for a priest, is given to one who would become, as Hebrews put it, the “Great High Priest.” Myrrh, embalming oil, used to anoint the body of one who is deceased, symbolized the death of one who would be the Savior of the world. These interpretations are alluded to the last verse of “We Three Kings of Orient Are” in the line “Glorious now behold Him arise: King and God and Sacrifice.”
It is because only three gifts are mentioned that we conclude, maybe erroneously, that the Magi consisted of only three men. The tradition in our religion recognizes three wise men. The Eastern Church tradition recognizes twelve wise men seeking Jesus. The truth is that no one really knows how many actually came, but we do know that three gifts were offered. John Chrysostom, an eloquent preacher from the very early days of the Christian church, gives some important insight into the lives of these travelers from the East. Chrysostom says that these men knew that they were giving gifts to a deity, to God, not just to a baby.
Since these gifts are never mentioned again in Scripture, what could have happened to them? One tradition speculates that thieves stole the gifts and that later in the life of Jesus those thieves were actually the two men who were crucified on either side of Jesus. Another story suggests that these gifts, especially the gift of gold, were entrusted to Judas who misappropriated them. One tradition that may be accurate is that Mary and Joseph used these valuable gifts to finance their travels when they fled Bethlehem and escaped to Egypt. We know that they could not have had much money.
What does this visit of the Magi mean? Their visit means that Joseph would be later warned in a dream that Herod was intent on killing Jesus. Herod did, in fact, order that all male children under the age of two be put to death. Herod thought, perhaps, that two-year time frame would eliminate this child that was a threat to him. The timing of Herod’s order and the inclusion of males under the age of two provide more evidence that the wise men arrived sometime after the birth of Jesus.
Zeffirelli’s film Jesus of Nazareth includes a scene of the Holy Family’s escape. The family moves out of Bethlehem and across the desert toward Egypt just ahead of the chaos, the infanticide. Clare says that scene is one of her favorites when she thinks of the Christmas story because it symbolizes God’s protection of this father, mother, and child.
Why did the wise men go home another way? They returned home by an alternate route in order to avoid Herod. Gregory the Great offered some insight, saying that their alternate route is an indication that once we meet Jesus, we must give up the old way and find a new way. That thought has some merit.
What happened to these wise men after they paid homage to Jesus? After Verse 12 of Matthew 2, they disappeared; we never hear of them again. Some say that as they traveled home another way they met Thomas. That, of course, would have been years later. Gregory the Great said that Thomas actually baptized these men. They became Christians and took the gospel of Christ back to their homeland. Another scholar says that St. Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, found and took their remains back to Constantinople. Eventually those remains, those relics, made their way to Cologne, Germany, where they are kept in The Shrine of the Three Kings, an elaborate container of gold.
Why are the Magi described as kneeling, bowing in worship? This gesture, kneeling, is so much a part of the narratives of Christmas. We see this kneeling position in both Luke’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel. Jewish people ordinarily do not kneel when they pray. Instead, they stand and sway. The shepherds and wise men inspired this idea of kneeling, a posture of humility that has had an important effect on the Christian faith.
I try to come back to a favorite story every Christmas season, a story written by Henry Van Dyke and published in 1895. The story has been published many times since, reprinted as recently as 1996. Several years ago I gave copies to all of our children for Christmas.
The story picks up with the biblical Magi as depicted here in the Gospel of Matthew. Henry Van Dyke adds a fourth wise man named Artaban who wants to give three gifts to this new king. His gifts are not gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Instead, his gifts are three precious jewels: a sapphire as blue as the night sky, a deep red ruby as red as human blood, and a pearl that Van Dyke calls the “pearl of great price.”
We first see Artaban traveling at night across the desert to join a caravan with the other wise men. On his Arabian horse, he comes to an oasis sometime after midnight and stops to refresh himself and his horse with the water available there. As he is preparing to mount his horse and leave, he hears a low cry, a moan, in the dark. He searches and finds a man who has been beaten and robbed. Only partially conscious, the man is unable to care for himself. Like other Magi, Artaban knows medicinal arts. He tends to this man’s wounds and places the man on his own horse. Together they ride across the desert. Of course, Artaban’s assistance slows the journey. He arrives late at the appointed destination to meet the other wise men. They have already gone on their way without him.
Artaban takes additional time caring for this man before continuing his journey. He goes to the market and sells his blue sapphire. With the considerable money he receives from its sale, he pays the lodging for this wounded man, instructing the innkeeper, much as the Good Samaritan did, “Take care of this injured man. If I owe you more for his care, I will pay that when I return.”
With the remainder of the money, he equips himself to travel. No longer can he use his horse. He must use camels to continue. He organizes his own small caravan and starts following the star, trying to gain ground on the wise men ahead of him. When Artaban comes to the capital city of Jerusalem, he inquires if others in the town have seen the three companions who came before him. “Yes,” they say. “They were here and talked with people in the court of Herod who told them to go to Bethlehem. They traveled south.”
Artaban makes his way to Bethlehem, only to find horrible circumstances. Roman soldiers are in the streets of the little town, putting to the sword small children, killing them without mercy. Mothers are screaming and crying, fathers are being pushed aside, and little babies are dying.
Artaban steps inside the door of a home. As he does so, he sees a frightened young mother holding her child. Artaban tells her not to be afraid. At that moment, the captain of the guard enters the home and demands, “Are any male children in this home?”
Artaban reaches into his pouch and pulls out the ruby, which he presses into the captain’s hand. “Take this gem and leave this town with your men,” he bribes.
The captain accepts the enticement and leaves Bethlehem.
Artaban stays for a while longer, trying to help other grieving parents and those injured throughout the city. As he goes from one person to another, he asks, “Was a king born here?”
The people of the town reply, “There was one born here, born in a stable some time ago. The shepherds told us the story, but the child is not here now. His mother and father left with him and crossed the desert. They were going to Egypt because the man had been warned in a dream to take his family away.”
Artaban knows that he now must continue his search. He also asks the townspeople about his three colleagues who should have already arrived. They say, “Yes, the three were here. They gave wonderful gifts to the family and then were also warned in a dream. They left for home, traveling a different way than they had come.”
Artaban continues his search for the king by heading to Egypt. The star no longer leads him. He wanders and wanders and wanders, spending numerous years, checking orphanages, prisons, shelters, and other places where the homeless lived.
Over the years Artaban grows old, but he remains determined in his desire to find the king and offer his one remaining gem, the precious pearl. He continues his search in Egypt to no avail, then travels back north through the town of Bethlehem and into the city of Jerusalem. There he finds a city crowded with people who have come to celebrate the Jewish religious festival called the Feast of the Passover. The streets are flowing with the blood of lambs being sacrificed as Passover lambs.
Artaban watches an unusual procession of Roman soldiers, pushing a prisoner along through the streets. Others following along behind the prisoner are crying. Through the crowd Artaban catches a glimpse of this man and sees that he is carrying a cross. Above the cross had been written the words, “King of the Jews” in several languages.
Could this be the king I have been searching for so many years?
Anxious to get more information, Artaban tries to press through the throng; but the numbers are too large. He goes around a back way through an alley where he sees soldiers dragging a young woman.
Artaban calls out to them, “What are you doing to that woman?”
They answer, “Her father could not pay his debts, so she will be sold as a slave.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Artaban reaches in his belt pouch and removes the pearl. He hands it to the leader of the soldiers and orders, “You take this and let her go free.” The soldiers agree to take the pearl as payment for the man’s debts and set the daughter free. The young woman expresses her gratitude to this stranger who has been so kind to her and leaves to find her father.
A great darkness fills the sky, and the ground begins to shake. Tiles and bricks are loosened from the roof and walls of a nearby building. One of the bricks falls and hits Artaban in the head, mortally wounding him. Lying on the pavement on his back, he gazes into the heavens and finally sees the king he has been seeking for so many years. The king confirms, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.”
I love Van Dyke’s story. It tells us how wise men and wise women should live.
We look at these strangers who are a part of our manger scene and ask, How did they respond to the one called Jesus? How are we to respond to the one called Jesus? We kneel in humility. He changes our lives, and we cannot return the same way we came. We give him gifts, but the gift he wants the most is our heart. Giving our heart to him changes us. We begin to live our lives as Artaban did, taking care of the least of these. Doing so is a significant gift to the King. Wise men and wise women still kneel. Wise men and wise women still pay honor to Christ. Wise men and wise women still follow the one we call Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Great High Priest, our Lord and our Savior.
Have you given your life to Jesus Christ? Do not delay in making this decision. You know what God has placed on your heart. We invite you to respond.
Kirk H. Neely © December 2012