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Commentary: Matthew 2:1-12

Every year, in all three cycles of the common Lectionary, Matthew 2:1-12, the visit of the magi, is the gospel reading for Epiphany. Combine this triple exposure with the pre-Christmas glut of nativities and carols involving the wise men, and you have a perfect prescription for congregational glazed eyes. Who wants to sing "We Three Kings" in January?
This Sunday, therefore, demands careful exegesis. The interpreter must work to hear this text afresh. Else even her eyes will begin to drift closed as the "In the time of King Herod" begins.
The approach here is primarily literary. It listens to this narrative as a story of conflict--on the political, religious, and theological levels. Not only is such an approach true to the text, it may well serve to clear the cobwebs from the minds of both preacher and congregation alike. This story may be many things. "Quaint" is not one of them.
Political Conflict
Having gotten the new Moses born (in ch. 1), Matthew now describes the first encounter of his earthly life. Like the baby Moses floating in the bulrushes (Ex 2), the baby Jesus must first contend with a threatened political tyrant. King Herod is the first person mentioned following Jesus' birth. There is no necessary reason for his inclusion (couldn't the wise men just keep following the star?) other than his role as foil to the king born in Bethlehem. The magi's question, "Where is the child who has been born king...?" initiates a conflict as old as that between Moses and Pharoah, and between Israel and Egypt. Which city is greatest? Jerusalem or Bethlehem? From whence shall come the king promised in the lectionary psalm, before whom all kings shall fall down and all nations serve (Ps 72:11)? The kind of cynical realpolitik such a conflict inspires is perfectly captured in King Herod's offer to the magi to fulfill Psalm 72's promise once the child's location is known (Mt 2:8). The coming of this new king produces conflict--first of all, with the rest of the world's kings as represented by King Herod.
[The parallel between Moses' nativity reception and Christ's is heightened by Edward Schweizer's citation of Jewish traditions contemporary with Matthew's writing. These traditions tell the story of an Egyptian astrologer who predicted the coming of a savior of the Israelites, following which Pharoah and all the Egyptians were upset and summoned all the wise folk of Egypt for a conference.1 The behavior of kings toward prophecies such as Matthew 2:6 seems constant across the ages.]
Religious Conflict
Isaiah 60:1-6, the Old Testament reading for Epiphany, describes the ingathering of those who have been dispersed in the exile. The glory of the Lord will arise. Israel's daughters and sons will come home. And the nations shall come to Israel's light, kings to the brightness of her dawn. "Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice." Why? "Because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you" (60:5). "A multitude of camels shall cover you" (Is 60:6)." "You shall suck the milk of nations, you shall suck the breasts of kings" (Is 60:16).
Imagine the religious authorities' dismay, then, when the nations (in the form of the wise men) come bearing their gifts not to the priests (in order to beautify the Temple, cf. Is 60:13) but to this child in a manger. No wonder "all Jerusalem" joined in Herod's fear (v. 3). They were being robbed--of the eschatological gifts that were theirs!
Have you ever expected a gift then seen it given to someone else? Though the chief priests and scribes knew the prophecy regarding Bethlehem, they were not yet ready for this child's lessons regarding the re-directing of the nations' wealth and worship. The wise men had other enemies beside Herod; they did well going home by another road.
Theological Conflict
The most remarkable characteristic of this story of conflict, however, is the miraculous absence of the same. You would think a battle between a king and his populace (on the one side) and three men and a baby (on the other) would be pretty horrendous (a lynch mob, a massacre, a slaughter).
This story is anything but! It moves along as if on rollers, cushioned and guarded against trauma by stars, prophecies, and dreams. You get the feel that the main actor is invisible and all powerful, never threatened by the visible parties on the stage. The story in this sense becomes a caricature of the conflict between Moses and Pharoah. Here, with no moving or hiding of his crib, the child is victorious over the king.
We thus are reminded that, at its deepest level, this story represents a conflict between the "gods": The one and only God of Israel (whose Messiah the gentile travelers recognize in Jesus) and all the earthly gods (of nation, tribe, or sect) we are tempted to worship instead. The form of this story reminds us that this battle is no contest. Without lifting a finger or uttering a word, the baby comes out on top.
The next chapter in this conflict story--where the innocents are slaughtered and the baby escapes in his parents' arms at night--rings realistically true. The identity of the combatants in Matthew 2:1-12 and the miraculous way they slide past each other (achieving worship and avoiding bloodshed) touches a hope deep within us all. Could such a plot ever take place amidst the conflicts of our lives? Who are the outsiders who might point us toward the path? Over what stable has God's star stopped in our world that we might go to worship this victorious child, our Savior, and then make our way home together by another road?
Richard Boyce
1. Edward Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975), p. 36.