Wise Men and Women

January 6th, 2014

Today is Epiphany, the day when we celebrate the arrival of the magi, or wise men, who came to see and worship the baby Jesus. (Epiphany is the twelfth day after Christmas, and marks the end of the Christmas season.) By some accounts our tradition of Christmas gift-giving comes from this story of the “kings” who brought valuable gifts to the child whose star they had seen from their homelands that were far to the east of Bethlehem and Judea. What we usually take away from the story is that kings worshipped the infant Jesus as the “King of kings.” In reality the wise men were probably not actual kings but astrologers or priests who believed that studying the stars offered signs about human events on earth. And though we traditionally speak of “three kings”—because Matthew’s Gospel mentions three specific gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh—Scripture never tells us how many wise men there were. But in the charming simplicity of the story, we may miss the complexity of its significance to the larger story of the Gospel and its implications for us today.

Wise Men, Foolish King

The Bible tells us that, before the wise men found Jesus in Bethlehem, they arrived in Jerusalem, where they met King Herod, a puppet king who owed his position and answered to the realm’s actual rulers, the Romans. When the magi revealed that they had come to worship the “King of the Jews,” Herod became fearful. After all, Herod reigned over the Jewish territories of Judea and Galilee. As far as he was concerned, he was the only person who could be called “King of the Jews.”

In Herod’s eyes, the wise men’s intent to bow down before some boy king, instead of him, was a threat to his rule. Herod was not one to allow perceived threats to go unmet. He had already killed two of his own sons, whom he feared would try to supplant him. By the lights of a ruthless and merciless world he inhabited, his attempt to kill the baby Jesus might have been perceived as a smart decision.

Matthew wants us to understand that Herod’s idea of wisdom was not only foolish but also evil. The nominal ruler over God’s chosen people in Jerusalem did not recognize the arrival of God’s Son. Instead, it fell to foreigners from far away to proclaim Jesus true identity and what his birth signified.

This tension runs throughout the Gospels and the entire New Testament. What Jesus and the early Christian leaders knew to be wise often conflicted with the conventional wisdom of their culture. The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth that God “made the wisdom of the world foolish” (1 Corinthians 1:20).

Strange Wisdom

What is wisdom? The question calls out to us today just as it did to people two thousand years ago. We live in a world and culture that too often values the kind of intelligence that Herod valued: an ability to outwit and outmaneuver others to our own advantage. Also, it measures success with wealth, power, and popularity. Some of us may be reluctant to embrace an understanding of wisdom that calls us to be humble, to make sacrifices, and to love our enemies and strangers. But Jesus teaches us to live our lives according to this strange notion of wisdom. We need to be able to see power in a newborn baby rather than in a kingdom that can be ruled with an iron fist. We need to be able to live humbly for God and others and not make personal gain our top priority. We need godly wisdom, not worldly wisdom.

This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.

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