Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72.10-15; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12
COMPETING visions of kingship and authority lie at the heart of the Epiphany story. As members of an educated, wealthy, priestly class, the Magi had direct access to rulers and the centres of imperial power. In the book of Daniel and writings of historians such as Seneca and Tacitus, we see how seriously Persian kings and Roman emperors took the word of such astrologers. (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins).
The homage that the Magi pay to the Christ-child fulfils the prophecies contained in this Sunday’s Old Testament readings. Psalm 72 speaks of Gentile kings journeying to Jerusalem to bear gifts to the Jewish monarch. Isaiah 60 makes specific reference to such kings bringing gifts of gold and frankincense. (It is probably these prophecies, and their evident wealth, which led to the mistaken identification of the Magi as kings.)
Their visit fulfils these prophecies, and yet indicates that the Christ-child embodies a very different vision of kingship. Along with gold and frankincense, the Magi present the infant Jesus with the burial spice of myrrh, foreshadowing his crucifixion. Instead of bringing their gifts to the Temple in Jerusalem, they pay homage in the humble lodgings of the Holy Family in Bethlehem (v. 11).
While they have discovered Jesus’s birth star, the knowledge of the Magi is incomplete. They need to turn to the Jewish scriptures to establish where the child is to be found; hence their encounter with King Herod and the religious authorities (vv. 5,6). This leads on to the most paradoxical element in the Epiphany story: “those who have the Scriptures and can see plainly what the prophets have said are not willing to worship the new-born king.” (Raymond E. Brown, Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year).
Those at the heart of religious power and knowledge in Jerusalem reject God’s saving work. Like the humble shepherds in Luke’s Gospel, it is the marginal characters — in this case, pagan visitors from the East — who are willing to pay homage to the true king.
In the story of Jesus’s infancy, Matthew is preparing his readers for the conflicts to come. The same cast of characters is present as at the Passion: the secular ruler, surrounded by “all the chief priests and scribes of the people” (v. 4). In Herod, we are given one vision of kingship and its relationship to religion. A puppet “King of the Jews” enforcing a brutal Roman occupation, he has co-opted the chief priests and scribes to reinforce the status quo.
The response of those religious leaders to news of another, more authentic king is one of fear (v. 3). Herod’s reaction is altogether more brutal: he, too, is fearful, but responds with lies (vv. 7,8) and, ultimately, genocidal violence (vv. 16-18). His slaughter of the Holy Innocents echoes Pharaoh’s killing of all Hebrew sons in Exodus 1.
In the Christ-child, a different vision of kingship and religion is proclaimed. The true “King of the Jews” does not enforce homage by violence. Like the infant Moses, he escapes the intended slaughter, and grows up to liberate his people. As an adult, Jesus will challenge the “heavy burdens” placed on the poorest by the religious authorities — and will cleanse and ultimately replace the Temple which Herod had built to cement his power.
The Magi have decided where their allegiance lies. Rather tactlessly, they tell Herod that they have come to offer worship (proskynesis) to the newborn king (v.2). The word they use is both a religious and a political one. Proskynesis designates the prostration which was given throughout the East when greeting a ruler. It is also the term used by the devil in Matthew 3, when he offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for his worship (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament).
In this Gospel passage, each character ultimately has to decide to whom their lives will pay homage. As Warren Carter observes, “The Magi have not extended any such submission to King Herod. They have made their choice.”
As each generation of Christians reads this story, it poses the same searching questions to us. What choice have we made? Where do our loyalties lie? To which powers are our lives ultimately paying homage?