NO Kings?? – Epiphany of the Lord – Matthew 2:1-12

NO Kings?? – Epiphany of the Lord – Matthew 2:1-12

The Epiphany story is colourful, dramatic, and full of mystery. The Magi, pilgrim astrologers of the East, follow a star in search of the divine and give the story an exotic flavour. They are from the East, a sign that the messiah is for all peoples, not just the Jews. God chooses to reveal himself to outsiders, strangers, and foreigners.

The term Magi is a plural form of magoi, in the Greek language. While Christian tradition holds that the Magi were kings, the evangelist Matthew does not tell us that they were three men or three kings. He simply calls them the Magi or astrologers. Perhaps many have assumed there were three because of the gifts which were a total of three objects.

A more precise description might be that the Magi belonged to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, which paid particular attention to the stars. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world and we have many Parses, as we call them here in our own city of Mumbai. It was the official religion of Persia before Islam. This priestly caste gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science.

The magi were also reputed to be adept at occult arts, such as the interpretation of dreams, fortune telling, and magic. They were well known for telling fortunes and preparing daily horoscopes. Here they are clearly thought of as astronomers or astrologers, who have found the rising of a star to be of world-historical significance. They were scholars of their day and enjoyed access to the Persian emperor.

As a side note, astrology and horoscopes are still popular. The fact that Matthew treats these magai kindly does not mean that astrology or horoscopes are legitimate. They constitute an alternate religious system incompatible with Christian faith, because they ascribe too much significance to the movement of stars. God is in control, not stars. God’s use of a star to guide these magai to Jesus was a one-time thing. God’s primary means of revelation are prophets, scriptures, sacraments, and Son—not stars.

God used their faith and knowledge to bring them to the Christ. We are told that they “worship” or “pay homage” to Jesus. The English Bibles choose a soft translation for the original word in Greek; namely ‘proskynein’ which highlights a main feature of the narrative. Correctly translated the word ‘worship’ or ‘homage’ refers to a type of devotion shown only to God (Matt 4:11).  

The Magi give Jesus three gifts. Gold is a sign of kingship, long associated with the gods, and frankincense represents wisdom and myrrh is a sign of long life and healing. Frankincense was and still a costly incense and myrrh was a prized perfume. These gifts were usually given to a king or a person with high status. The treasures carried by the men from the east did not make them proud; they remained humble, with hearts and hands open

The sincerity of the magi’s worship of Jesus is contrasted with Herod’s insincere pledge to worship Jesus. There is also an interesting contrast between these wise men’s response to Jesus’ birth and the way Herod, king of God’s people, responded. King Herod becomes greatly troubled to hear from the Magi that the new king for the Jews is born. He felt threatened and worried about his throne. Herod was appointed by Rome, the biggest enemy of the Jews. He was not a Jew, but an Idumean whose ancestors converted to Judaism. He knew from the chief priests and teachers of the law that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem in Judea, and he must come from the Davidic line. King Herod does not meet the biblical messianic criteria. He was already paranoid about any potential rival to his throne.  “He sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (verse 16).

At the Epiphany we learn of the Magi’s declaration of Jesus as a divine person and a King. The story teaches us that Jesus is our King and we should put him first in our life. The Magi could collude with King Herod, but for them Jesus Christ is greater and more powerful than Herod. They endured a long journey from Persia to Bethlehem to meet Jesus, the King. They risked their lives for the sake of Jesus. They rejoiced when they met him. Matthew tells us that they paid Jesus homage, not Herod. Are we willing to put Jesus first in our lives? This is a personal question that requires a thoughtful response.

The wise men saw the star and steadily followed it. The people in Jerusalem did not. What star am I being called to follow this year? What gifts from my treasure chest will I offer him in service of his mission?   

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