6 January 2014

Matthew 2:1-12

“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” (v. 11)


We owe much of our picture of the magi to a treatise attributed to the Venerable Bede rather than to Matthew's Gospel. Matthew does not even tell us that there were three magi - this has simply been inferred from the three gifts they brought. Bede invented descriptions of the three so-called 'wise men' and named them Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. He also interpreted the three gifts:

  • gold, a gift fit for a king
  • frankincense, an offering worthy of a divinity
  • myrrh, a foreshadowing of the death of the Son of Man.

But behind all this legend are significant messages about generosity to all.

According to social exchange theory you don't get something for nothing. This psycho-sociological way of understanding human relationships sees all human interactions as a form of exchange; that is to say, we give because we expect to receive something in return. It may not be anything as obvious as receiving a gift in return, or a return dinner invitation; sometimes what we receive through giving is the approval of others or a sense that we are kind and generous people, which boosts our self-esteem.

On the flip side, social exchange theory means that we don't expect to get something without paying for it. This can make us deeply suspicious of 'freebies', like the Christmas shoppers who refuse the mince pies offered as a gift by the local church, certain that there must be a 'catch'. We can find it very difficult to receive without giving in return.

But there is no 'catch' to the love of God. In this passage Matthew's Gospel relates how God, in immensely abundant generosity, gives the gift of Godself. God does not operate within social exchange theory or asks for or expects anything in return. Moreover, there could be no adequate recompense for the gift of God.

So why do the magi bring gifts, and extravagant gifts at that? It is certainly not an exchange - even gold, frankincense and myrrh are no exchange for the light of God's presence. Instead these gifts are a faint human reflection of what extravagant generosity looks like. Today's passage shows us extreme human generosity so that we can imagine how much greater is the generosity of God in revealing Godself to us.

To Ponder

  • Do you find it difficult to receive? Why do you think that is?
  • How have you experienced God's abundant generosity in your life?
  • Even if you have been a Christian for many years, are you still a 'seeker' like the magi? How do you seek the true light of God?

Bible notes author

The Revd Anna Bishop

Anna Bishop is a wife, mother and Methodist presbyter. She is currently without appointment while her two small children teach her a spirituality of interruption! She is living in the Salisbury circuit, where she leads Baby-interrupted Bible Study and Little Blessings, a service of worship for babies, toddlers, pre-school children and their carers.