A Different Look at the Wise Men
In any given story in the scriptures, you can count on the fact that there is a lot going on. Unfortunately, pop-Christianity and the “me-centered” nature of studying the Bible has left much of the underlying beauty of scripture unseen and thus leaving us largely unchanged. I can think of many examples of this issue ranging from the creation story/poem in Genesis to when Jesus calms the storm, however, since it is the middle of December, I would like to focus on a part of the Christmas story.
Christmas has become such a distraction from Jesus. From the gross economic inequality being amplified around the world to Christians who take up arms to fight the so-called “War on Christmas,” I find it terribly difficult to remember and remind others of the importance and weight of what we are supposedly celebrating.
I would like to take a brief look at the “wise men” or “Magi” in Matthew 2 (the only gospel which records their existence). We have become so familiar with them from our Nativity scenes and our Christmas songs that I think it would do us good to go back to the scriptures to re-orient (pun…intended…) ourselves around their place in the story.
Iranian Astrologers visit a Jewish King
If you look at Matthew 2:1-12, there just really isn’t much said about these Magi. We know a few things from the context. First, it’s important to point out that “wise men/Magi” is translated from the word “magos” which can mean a number of things: astrologers, seers, sorcerers, teachers and priests. We also know that this name is likely Babylonian or Persian.
So, we have these Persian/Babylonian – Iranian/Iraqi – astrologers who have seen a certain astronomical formation that, for some reason or another, is a sign that a king has been born and in this case, the king of the Jews. Apparently, their next step was to load up and head out to find this king to worship and bow down to him. However, I find it absolutely fascinating that nothing in this story connects these “wise men” to the Jewish Messiah. In fact, if we think back into Israel’s history, we remember that Israel and Babylon had a rather complicated relationship. The only thing that appears to be linking these astrologers to Jesus is nothing other than a star.
We often forget that these “wise men” were not Christians. And beyond that, it’s important to also realize that these guys were not even Jewish, yet God still spoke to them in a way they would understand – through the stars. I think it is safe to say that these Magi did not consider the Torah to be authoritative and probably didn’t perceive any need for a savior…yet they came, worshipped and bowed down to Jesus.
As familiar and comfortable as we are with the wise men (because of Nativity scenes and Christmas carols), if we looked a bit deeper at their story we might find ourselves outside of our own comfort zone. I believe the implications of their story really ought to make us think twice about how we think and respond to people’s experiences with God. We like saying whether God has or has not spoken to someone. I think that is us attempting to box God in. A god who is easily defined and predictable, like the Golden Calf, suits us best. That god is not “unfair.” That god doesn’t cause a stir. But, that god is not the God who loses one sheep and leaves the ninety-nine to find it. That is not the god who forgives the people who are murdering him on a cross.
I had a friend tell me once that she and Jesus have a very unique relationship. She went on to describe dreams and conversations she has with Jesus. She told me that the Jesus she knows is not like the one she got to know in church as a kid. She said some odd things, honestly, and they left me fairly baffled. On one hand I was happy we were talking about Jesus because I didn’t know she “knew” him but on the other hand I doubted her experiences. Why? Because it was unfamiliar to me. That’s not how I know Jesus. But it isn’t about me and how I think Jesus meets people. It’s about how Jesus wants to meet people.
Would we doubt, and even shame, someone who said they found Jesus through horoscopes? Would we minimize someone coming in contact with Jesus if they told us it happened by reading the Qur’an? Is it possible that we need to step back, drop our skepticism and let God introduce people to Jesus in whatever way he chooses?
May we, this Christmas, take a break from deciding who gets to experience Jesus and trust that God can and will do anything to introduce people to him.
Have you ever experienced Jesus in a unique way? Have you ever doubted someone’s experience with Jesus? How has God used your context (work, school, hobbies, etc.) to show you something about himself?