Sunday

6 January 2019

Matthew 2:1-12

When they had heard the king, they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. (v 9-10)

Psalm: Psalm 72

Background

Who were these visitors whose quest to find Jesus ended with such joy? Matthew describes them as magi, often translated as ‘wise men’ but possibly meaning something closer to ‘astrologer’. The ancient world was not over-impressed with knowledge drawn from the stars, and star-gazers rarely enjoyed high status. Easterners too were regarded with suspicion; the east was seen as degenerate, in contrast to the well-disciplined Roman empire. Herod’s reaction to news from a star in the East marks him as a paranoid ruler who fears his days are numbered.

In seeking advice from Herod, the magi unwisely create great danger for the young children of Bethlehem. A frightened tyrant is liable to respond erratically, without any consideration for the impact of his action. Those close to Herod – the people of Jerusalem – had learnt to fear his rage, and the leaders must have trembled as they explained the scriptures. This time, however, the young children of Bethlehem and their families became his victims (2:16).

After the plotting and scheming of Herod’s palace, there is a beautiful, peaceful simplicity about the arrival of the magi, following the star. There are no more questions, just the offering of homage. Here, Matthew describes Jesus as a ‘little child’, not a baby, and the family home is a house, not a stable. This picture of settled family life adds poignancy to the flight which follows, as the family become refugees (2:14).

The tradition that there were three magi arises from the description of three gifts. Gold and frankincense recall the gifts of Sheba to the people of Israel (Isaiah 60:6), while myrrh had been a gift for the Lord since Moses’ day (Exodus 30:22-26). There have been many attempts to explain the meaning of the gifts, for example in the hymn ‘We three kings’, but we can only be sure that Matthew would have intended us to think about the Biblical links.

The magi are Gentiles, and this story introduces an important theme. This first revelation (or epiphany) of God’s grace to Gentiles is repeated throughout the Gospel. Jesus is for Gentiles as well as Jews. All people are free to worship him and bring gifts, and no one will be rejected.

 

To Ponder:

  • Today is Covenant Sunday, when Methodists traditionally renew their covenant with God and reflect on their calling. What gifts do you believe you are called to give back to God?
  • Where do you see resonances between this story and people’s experience in this day and age?
  • Look online at some famous artists’ pictures of this scene (it’s often called ‘The Adoration of the Magi’). What strikes you about these pictures? What is authentic to the Gospel, and what isn’t?

Bible notes author

The Revd Caroline Wickens

Caroline is a Methodist presbyter, currently serving as superintendent of the Manchester Circuit. She is married to Andrew, an Anglican priest, and has two children.

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