Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Matthew 2: 1-12

The following text is Matthew 2:1-12 (King James Version) and has been copied from Bible Gateway at this location.
1Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

2Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

3When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

4And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

5And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,

6And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

7Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.

8And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

9When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

10When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

11And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

12And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

This, like the passages we have already looked at, is a story of events thought by the gospel-writer (who I will hereafter refer to as "Matthew") to have taken place around the time of Jesus' birth. We have, as far as I know, no information about where Matthew read or heard this story. It is, at best, a second-hand story and would not be regarded by historians as strong evidence that the events "really" happened. Indeed, certain elements of the story make it seem more like a deliberately crafted work of imagination than an attempt at realistic reporting. A star, for example, is not the kind of thing one can "follow" nor the kind of thing that can be said to rest "over" a particular location on earth. Still, there is no reason to think that Matthew himself doubted the truth and importance of the story. It illuminates very well certain truths about
  • Jesus' place in both Jewish history and universal history.
  • The range of attitudes toward Jesus by people of status, intellect, and political power.

The story begins by situating itself geographically at a definite and nearby location (" Bethlehem of Judaea") and temporally in a history which was comparitively recent at the time the gospel was written (" the days of Herod the King"). Matthew is clear that the Jesus he is writing about is a flesh-and-blood human being, born among a particular people, born to play a particular role in the history of that people, and born at a specific time in the stream of history. He is not an abstract archetype, a disembodied spirit, or a timeless mythical god-figure. These assertions about outward facts about Jesus are in a sense open to question. They might turn out, if we should find some way to check, to be somewhat other than Matthew thought. At the very least, we can say that they don't seem completely compatible with what Luke has to say. But this much seems pretty clear: Matthew thought he was writing about a real person, and he was using source material some of which came from people who knew this real person.

Next we are told about "wise men from the east" who come to Jerusalem looking for someone they call "...the king of the Jews." Two things strike me about this - -
  • first: the supposition that people who were not Jews would take such an interest in who the "King of the Jews" might be. Evidently, Matthew thought that many foreigners would inherently sense that events among the people of Judah would have world-wide significance. Many commentators have pointed out that this aspect of the story shows a gentile interest in Jesus, but surely it also shows a gentile interest in the Jews
  • second: that for Matthew himself it is important that Jesus is "King of the Jews", that he is part of the story of the descendants of Abraham and David. We are all too aware today of the historic tensions between Christians and Jews, and of the fact that some of these date back to the earliest years of Christianity. The fact remains that these two faith traditions are very much intertwined and that the faith of the early Church cannot really be understood apart from the context of Jewish history and Jewish faith.

Having arrived in Jerusalem to look for the new king, the "wise men" start asking around for him. They say they want to "worship" him. I'm tempted to go off on a tangent here and try to figure out what this word means in this context. Soon, as we shall see, Herod himself hypocritically says he wants to "worship" this successor. But who "worships" kings? What is the Greek word for this that's in the gospel? Unfortunately, I know that if I pursue every tantalizing question of this kind I will never get far in this commentary. Maybe some reader (if I have any readers) will chip in with an insight about it. Be that as it may, the inquiries the "wise men" make come to the attention of Herod, the old king. The text says "...he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." This is pretty much to be expected, given the attitude of kings throughout history to potential rivals, including babies.

Now (in verses 4-6) we are given a picture of Herod consulting with the chief priests and the scribes of the people. Sounds like the kind of thing that a prudent king would do. However, it also sounds like the kind of thing that Matthew, writing decades later, would have absolutely no way of knowing. The passage is probably retrospective speculation. It is also not clear to me whether "chief priests" and "scribes" at that time would have interpreted the quoted passage "for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel" as a prediction that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. (I say "it's not clear to me" meaning that I really am not sure. Other writers have cast some doubt on this and I feel obliged to mention that; but going back to find those writers, re-read their thoughts, and form my own judgement would ... again ... be a detour for me. I welcome any comments on the matter from my readers).

Herod's last word in this chapter is to send the wise men on their way to Bethlehem, and to ask them to report back. We know, of course, that he is up to no good. In him we see at one level the garden-variety attachment to power that all kings (and presidents, and CEO's) experience in some degree. I am tempted to wonder out loud whether he would have been quite as upset if he really understood what kind of King Jesus would turn out to be. Jesus wasn't really destined to take Herod's throne, but a far more exalted one. Symbolically, however, Herod's sense of threat is entirely warranted. All earthly power is fundamentally challenged by Jesus' spiritual kingdom.

Is it in other translations, or only in folklore, that the "wise men" are themselves "kings" ("We three kings of Orient are,...")? T.S. Eliot's wonderful poem "Journey of the Magi" presents even these worshippers as "no longer at ease in their old dispensations" after viewing the Christ child, and this seems quite plausible to me. In Matthew's story, though, there is little hint of that. After being pointed toward Bethlehem by Herod (not by the star, incidentally), the "wise men" again follow the star until it comes to the where the young child Jesus is. Alert readers will notice that this was a "house" and not a manger or stable. This seems to be in conflict with Luke's story, though I suppose the two can be harmonized with a little imagination. It's the kind of detail that the village atheist loves to pick on and that most believers (like myself) will find irrelevant.

Anyway, the wise men "rejoiced with exceeding great joy" when they saw the star again, and when they actually found Jesus and his mother they "fell down and worshipped him" and "...presented unto him gifts; gold and frankincense and myrrh". Here we have a picture of the learned and possibly powerful foreigners paying homage and tribute to a child who is not yet recognized by anyone in his own country. Many readers feel that Matthew is scoring points here against his fellow Jews. More to the point for me is that he is scoring points against all of us (including Christians, especially Christians) who inerit a tradition of faith, but fail to recognize and give due respect and honor to God's chosen ones among our contemporaries, especially if they appear in humble disguise.

The end of the wise men's story is that they are "warned of God in a dream that they sould not return to Herod", and they go home another way. This caution does indeed seem wise. There is no point in crossing Herod's path if they can avoid it. Thus, the wise men end their only brief appearance in the canonical gospels; leaving just enough of a record to inspire centuries of story-tellers, poets, playwrights, mystics, and conspiracy theorists.

We have not heard the last of Herod, however. In the next part of the story, beginning at Matthew 2:13, we learn of his terrible and genocidal wrath. It's a horrible story, and more than I can think abour or write about today.