Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12

Seek the Lord

Have you ever felt called to find an answer or go on a quest? What happened?

Youth is the time of new adventures and new experiences. Many youth simply jump from experience to experience without direction. Others spend their youth seeking, trying to find the answer to Life and Truth. Some just look for the next convenience. Others seek something worth their commitment.

To end the Christmas season, we turn to Matthew's story of the Magi, the wise men who rose above the mundane day-to-day experience to seek someone. The "light to the nations," the newborn King of the Jews.

Popular Translation

1 Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod, King of Palestine. After his birth, wise men who studied the stars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. 2. They began to ask, "Where is the child who is to be King of the Jews? We saw the star that pointed to him in the East, and we came to honor him."

3 When King Herod heard they were asking about a new king, he and everyone in Jerusalem got upset. 4 He called the Temple priests and teachers of the Jewish Law together and asked them, "Where will the Christ be born?"

5 "He will be born in Bethlehem of Judea," they answered, "because God said through one of his prophets:

6 'And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are not the least among the leaders of Judah;
for from you will come out a leader
who will shepherd my people Israel.

7 Herod called the men together in a private meeting. "When did the star first appear?" he asked them. 8 After they discussed the star, Herod sent them to Jerusalem with this request: "Go and ask everyone about the child. When you find him, come and tell me, so I can honor him, too."

9 When they heard the king's request, they left. Then, the star which they saw in the East led them and stood over the place Jesus was. 10 When they saw this, they were very happy. And their hearts were full of great joy. 11 When they entered the place where Jesus was, they saw the child with Mary, his mother. They bowed before Jesus, like he was a king. Then they opened their treasures and offered him three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

12 Later, God warned them in a dream not to return to Herod. So they went home on a different road.

On the list of favorite Bible stories, the visit of the Magi floats to the top. Foreign seekers of truth came to witness the coming of a new king. But Matthew had more in mind than wise men on the road. He saw God in the details.

Literal Translation

1 After, however, JESUS had been born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, Look!, Magi arrived from the East in Jerusalem, 2 saying, "Where is the ONE having been born King of the Jews? For, we saw HIS star in the East, and we came to bow before HIM." 3 When he heard, King Herod was upset, and all of Jerusalem with him. 4 And bringing together all the priests and scribes of the people, he asked from them where the Christ would be born. 5 They, however, said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea. For thus it is written through the prophet,

6 'And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are not the least among the leaders of Judah;
for from you will come out a leader
who will shepherd my people Israel.'"

2:1 "Magi" can be literally translated at "magicians" but this would miss the point of whom they really were. "Magi" were astrologers, religious leaders, and royal advisers in Persia. The term "Magi" was retained because of its unique meaning. See the commentary for more information.

2:2 " . . . his star in the East . . . " Ancient religions saw divine will written in the night sky. Astrologers would study and interpret the stars to advise kings and aristocracy. What the night sky revealed, they held, would occur on earth.

"...to bow before . . . " can be translated "to worship." In context, the men came to honor the new king. Matthew used these passages to promote his theme that even the non-Jews sought Jesus as a spiritual King. (See 2:8)

2:6 The verse comes from Micah 5:2. The phrase "who will govern my people Israel" was added from 2 Samuel 5:2. The verse is confusing because the writer referred to Bethlehem in the second person. Did he refer to the hamlet itself or the people (i.e., leaders) of the hamlet? In either case, Matthew used this verse to support the notion that the birth of the Christ would be in Bethlehem.

The story of the Magi has been a favorite for generations. Foreign dignitaries came to honor the newly born King of the Jews. For Matthew, however, the story had highly charged political overtones. For, during the time of Jesus, the Persian Magi opposed the eastward expanse of the Roman Empire. The visit of the Magi represented foreign interference in the affairs of a puppet appointed by Rome. Through the juxtaposition of political foes, Matthew communicated his theme. Foreigner seekers would recognize the Jewish Messiah but the leadership in Jerusalem would not. This theme foreshadowed the opposition of the leadership against the ministry of Jesus, and its parallel in the time of Matthew: the opposition of the Pharisees to the new Christian communities.

The scene began with the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem. Ancient people believed the stars and constellations revealed the will of the divine. The night sky took on a spiritual dimension. For example, the stars held constant for their season (like the gods) and showed direction in the dark (like divine will). The connection between the stars and the affairs of humans produced a class of astrologer-sages, wise men who studied the stars. As a note of interest, the temples (or ziggurats) of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iran and Iraq), home to the Magi, were built to observe the night sky. The presence of these stargazing, foreign sages in the Jewish capital caused consternation. Why were these unclean foreigners present? What did they want? [2:3]

Their question also caused concern. Herod was the king. And the hierarchy of the Temple and the leading men in Jerusalem were Herod's hand-picked cronies (subject, of course, to the will of Rome). Foreign dignitaries come from out of the blue to visit a new born King of the Jews, someone so important, his destiny was written in the stars. Their question had two consequences. First, someone beside Herod would be the new king. Second, the present administration was illegitimate. In the question of the Magi, we can hear Matthew's theme of the coming Messiah, the king-priest. God's chosen one was here! And the old corrupt leadership would be swept away! The Magi and their question represented a threat to the king, to the Temple leadership and city fathers, and to Roman occupation. [2:1-2]

In his panic, King Herod consulted the religious leaders, the chief priests and teachers of the Law. They respond by a quote from Micah 5:2. In an interesting side note, the Sadducees (the Temple leadership and city fathers) whom Herod would have consulted rejected the Prophets as part of Scripture. Only the Pharisees accepted those books of Scripture beyond the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. In one swoop, Matthew lumped the Pharisees together with their enemies, the Sadducees and the court of Herod, in order to answer the question: where would the Messiah be born? This foreshadowed the opposition of these groups to Jesus' ministry. At the same time, Matthew provided the fulfillment of Scripture in the mouths of Jesus' enemies. They convicted themselves by their own words. The One they opposed was he whose origin they clearly saw! [2:4-5]

7 Then Herod, in private having called the Magi together, found from them the (exact) time of the star's appearance. 8 And, having sent them to Bethlehem, he said, "Having traveled, inquire completely about the (small) CHILD. When, however, you find (HIM), tell me, so I, having come, might bow before him." 9 Having heard the king, they traveled. And, behold! The star which they saw in the East lead them until it, having come, stood above (the place) where the CHILD was. 10 But, having seen the star, they rejoiced (with) a great, overflowing joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the CHILD with Mary, his mother. And, having fallen, they bowed before him. And having opened their treasures, they offered HIM gifts-gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And, having been warned in a dream not to turn back to Herod, they left another way to their country.

2:7 " . . . star's appearance . . . " is literally " . . . shining of the star . . . "

2:10 " . . . they rejoiced (with) a great, overflowing joy . . . " is literally " . . . they rejoiced a exceedingly great joy . . . " The redundancy expressed an indescribable joy.

2:11 " . . . having fallen, they bowed before him . . . " The term "fallen" is used metaphorically (no, they didn't fall down, then stand up to bow). The men entered, bowed as if before royalty, and presented their gifts. This was standard protocol for visiting dignitaries. Notice the term "to bow before" can also mean "to honor."

Herod called the Magi into a private meeting to find out the details. While we modern Americans might think this was prudent on the part of the king, the contemporaries of Jesus viewed this meeting as one more indication that Herod and his administration were devious and dishonorable. Unlike America's obsession with an individual's right of self determination and privacy, ancient cultures had a mentality focused on the extended family. This group mentality defined and determined an individual's identity and purpose. As part of a larger family, the individual was to bring honor to the family (and honor to himself as part of the family). Honor based upon reputation was an exercise in the public arena. Culture was so focused upon honor in public that anything done in private (alone or with another) was viewed with suspicion. Secretive individuals were seen as self-absorbed, devious, untrustworthy, and ultimately dishonorable. Herod's request to follow the Magi and honor the new king was so weak and dubious, the wise men had no obligation to partake in his shameful actions. [2:7-8, 12]

In the end, the Magi did the right and honorable thing, unlike Herod. They followed their calling. According to ancient protocol, they approached, bowed, and honored the young king and his mother with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold was the international currency. Frankincense was a pricey, imported incense made from the sap of a tree. And myrrh was the sweet-smelling resin of an Arabian scrub that was used for medical uses and for the preparation of a body for burial. Since God had revealed his will in the stars to them, he also warned them of Herod's intent through a dream, another ancient avenue to receive divine will. [2:9-12]

Catechism Theme: The Mysteries of Jesus' Infancy: Part II

The feast of Epiphany celebrates the revelation of Christ to the pagan nations. And it points to Israel's place as the source of God's revelation. The Magi came to seek the newly born King, the one who would be a light to the nations. Their encounter foreshadowed the evangelization success Christianity would have among pagan people who hungered for God's truth. Their encounter also acknowledged Israel as God's chosen people. They would be the source of God's blessing, a living fountain of God's revelation for all people. In the feast of the Epiphany, we rejoice in the worship of the first seekers. And we are reminded to honor God's people who gave us the great gift of Jesus, our Lord.

When have you searched for the Lord? When has that search encountered road blocks or deception or wrong turns? How has God kept you on track?

As we look back on the story of the Epiphany, let us remember who called, guided, and revealed himself to the Magi: God. The story was God-driven from the first verse. Let us not forget God himself calls us from the surface experience of daily living to seek something higher, something better. He is the one who turns us from those who expect experience into those who receive grace, pure gift, at every turn. In God, we find someone to give our hearts, our minds, and our lives to. We find the goal of our quest.

How has God called you this week? How has God graced you this week? How can you pass your call and your grace along to others?