It has been a while since I’ve written about the Magi. Perhaps it is time to spend a little time with them. This is one of those stories in the Bible that we think we know, but maybe we haven’t giving it it’s proper attention. If you want to read the story, it is Matthew 2:1-18.
The Magi are not Jews and they are not Romans, they are foreigners in every sense of the word. They don’t belong in Israel, they don’t belong in the Roman Empire, yet they show up in King Herod’s court looking for the king of the Jews because they want “to pay him homage.” Gentiles traveling to worship the Jewish king. And they ask the current Roman approved king of the Jews- Herod- where they can find the new king of the Jews. Notice they don’t pay homage to Herod, they are looking for Herod’s replacement. In fact they scare Herod and “all of Jerusalem”.
Frightened Herod needs to find this new King of the Jews. The chief priests and the scribes, people who should know about the birth of the King, can narrow down the location to Bethlehem. But Herod, the Roman approved king of the Jews, still needs the Magi to find Jesus. Herod tries to use the Magi for his own ends, sending them off to find the child. The Magi find the child,Jesus and “overwhelmed with joy” they worship him. And then, they wisely pay attention to a dream and avoid Herod on their way home.
Often we end our reading here, with Herod tricked, Jesus worshiped by mysterious wise men and the Magi safely on their way home. A tidy and satisfying ending.
If we read farther we find that the rest of the story is horrifying. An angel warns Joseph and the Holy Family flee for their lives. Herod is “infuriated” by the actions of the Magi and kills all the children “in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under”. Even after Herod’s death, things are not safe in Judea for the Holy Family. Archelaus is ruler there and so Joseph takes Jesus and Mary to Nazareth in Galilee. It’s a grim ending to the nativity story. Babies have died. Families mourn. The Roman Empire continues its oppressive rule. The young boy Messiah is in hiding in Nazareth.
Look where Matthew’s emphasis is- 7 verses on Jesus birth, focused mostly on the disgrace of Mary’s pregnancy and 18 verses on the story of the Magi. Matthew tells a pretty grim story.
And there is truth, hard truth in this story. Kingdoms and rulers do not give up their power without a fight. And innocent people suffer. Babies and toddlers suffer. Salvation is a costly business for everyone.
The Bible, whether we like it or not, describes the world with a clear eyed realism. There is no fairy tale happy ending. The kingdoms and powers which resist God are strong and not to be trifled with. And yet, yet a voice cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord..” the beloved Son has come. The way is not easy, but God will not stop until God’s purposes are fulfilled. Which is for us, in our days, good news. The beloved Son has come and God will not stop until God’s purposes are fulfilled.