On Gypsies and Magic Men
This is Day #2 of our Daily Bible Reading plan for 2013— a chapter by chapter reading of the New Testament. One chapter a day (except that because we started late, 1 Cor 8-9 and 2 Cor 8-9 had to be doubled up to get the whole New Testament in by the end of the year). Of course that means that we’re right back where we were a couple of weeks ago before the Christmas season—reading the birth narrative in Matthew. In a previous blog, I suggested that while it doesn't matter how you observe or don't observe our traditional holiday season, it does matter very much whether you believe the story of God coming in the flesh in the person of Jesus. And the way that Jesus came in the flesh is told in Matthew and Luke (and also in Revelation 12, though it has a bit of harder edge there). So we can’t read this story too much, and today we read it once again.
Matthew 2 tells of the visit of the wise men or “magi” to see and worship the one born king of the Jews. The word “magi” is from a Persian word for “priest,” and it is the root of our word “magic.” Most of what we think we know about the magi actually is from church tradition. We think of their being three (based on the gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh) though Eastern church tradition has twelve (they went in together on the three gifts). By the 3rd century, the magi were see as kings, and thus the carol is “We Three Kings” and not “We Three Priests.” Daniel would have been a magi in his role as “chief of magicians, enchanters, astrologers” (Dan 5:11). Jeremiah refers to “Rab-Mag” or “Chief Magi” (Jer 39:3).
So the magi were a well-known class of ancient wise men. They saw the Bethlehem star in east because that is what they did-- they looked at the sky. They saw the star as a divine sign because that is also what they did— they looked for signs in the stars. And they reported their findings to King Herod because that is also what the Magi did—they advised kings. Think. Why was Herod and all of Jerusalem disturbed by Magi’s visit (Matt 2:3)? Well, Kings and their court took the reports of magi seriously-- that is what they did. If Magi were Persian (as is generally thought), they travelled over 1000 miles and it took them more than a year to get to the holy family (that’s why Herod killed all the boy babies under two years old). They took the sign and their quest very seriously.
The question is, “Why?” Not why did they take the sign so seriously. Why did God announce the birth of Jesus to Persian astrologers 1000 miles removed from Bethlehem? For that matter, why did God choose to announce the birth of Jesus to shepherds out in their fields watching sheep? Shepherds in the first century were very much social outcasts, seen as dirty, smelly, low-class gypsies who would rob you blind if had chance. In other words, the shepherds were the kind of social outcasts that Jesus would hang out with during his ministry. So I guess it makes senses that they’d get an invite to Jesus’ baby shower. But what the magic men from Persia?
The birth of the Messiah was too big to limit the size of His baby shower! Israel and Israel’s Messiah would be God’s light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6). God was not intending for Jesus to have a message only for the chosen people; the light would shine too brightly for that. Luke tells a little side story of Mary and Joseph going to the Temple with baby Jesus for the sacrifice of purification. There they met a man named Simeon who was waiting for the Messiah and who praises and prophesies over baby Jesus (Luke 2:29-32)
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
Joseph and Mary heard Simeon speaking of their son Jesus as God’s light to Gentiles and then sometime later these foreign magic-men show up following a star and worshiping their boy? I’m sure that made perfect sense to Joseph and Mary (Luke 2:19).
It seems that we learn something about Jesus from the story of his birth. Right from the beginning, the people Jesus attracts— the shepherds and the Magi—are not the people that you would expect to be interested in a Jewish Messiah. The established authorities want nothing to do with Jesus-- Herod tries to kill him, and the priests would later pull that off. But it was Jewish gypsies (who were not accepted in polite company) and pagan magi (who weren't accepted in any company) who are the ones who hear about Jesus and come running to see him.
I wonder if Jesus’ church has every really come to grips with the fact that those outside of polite company are more likely to be attracted to the story of Jesus? And I wonder if we have missed that fact because we have been too busy trying to be polite company?