Jesus: King of Just the Jews?
In her sermon, “Home By Another Way” Barbara Brown Taylor tells this story: Once upon a time there were three–yes, three–very wise men who were all sitting in their own countries minding their own business when a bright star lodged in the right eye of each one of them. It was so bright that none of them could tell whether it was burning in the sky or in their own imaginations, but they were so wise they knew it did not matter all that much. The point was, something beyond them was calling them, and it was a tug they had been waiting for all their lives.
Each in his own country had tried books, tried magic, tried astrology and reflexology. One had spent his entire fortune learning how to read and write runes. Another lived on nothing but dried herbs boiled in water. The third could walk on hot coals but it did nothing for him beyond the great sense of relief he felt at the end.
They were all glad for a reason to get out of town–because that was clearly where the star was calling them, out–away from everything they knew how to manage and survive, out from under the reputations they had built for themselves, the high expectations, the disappointing returns. And so they set out, one by one, each believing that he was the only one with a star in his eye until they all ran into one another on the road to Jerusalem…
The Wise Men, the Magi, the Three Kings, or even the Three Wise Guys have always been a part of the Christmas story. Normally they are just like us, only dressed in fancy robes. Unless you’re at the children’s Christmas pageant, and then they’re normally in bathrobes. But they are nonthreatening, normally, white men or boys all dressed up with some expensive gifts. We don’t see how different they are from Mary and Joseph in particular or the Jews in general. Or how this would look to Matthew’s mainly Jewish Christian readers. Matthew tells us that the Wise Men came from the East. They were probably from Persia, what is now Iraq and Iran. What was Assyria and Babylon. Why is this significant? Because these two countries destroyed Israel over the course of about 100 years with the climax of Babylon destroying Jerusalem and taking its people into captivity. This part of the world did not hold good memories for the Jewish people.
Another reason this is odd is that these men were not followers of the Jewish God. They probably worshiped many gods, and as Barbara Brown Taylor noted, they were astronomers and astrologers, which is why they knew the significance of the star. Most likely they were priests who used many practices forbidden by the Hebrew Scriptures: divination, magic, and astrology. They were not kosher. Why in the world would they be seeking the King of the Jews?
That goes back to the exile in Babylon. One of the Jews taken was Daniel. You’ve probably heard the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den. He was thrown into a pit filled with lions, and they did not eat him because God had shut their mouths. That’s the same Daniel. He was a lay-prophet, and he worked for King Nebuchadnezzar–the same king who destroyed Jerusalem. He was one of the king’s top advisors. Although this cannot be proved, there is a story that Daniel reaffirmed a prophecy given in Numbers 24:17 that “a star shall rise out of Jacob [Israel]” that would be a great king and savior and deliver his people from their enemies. Daniel told the Babylonian mages to watch for this star. Whether or not Daniel did this, one fact remains: not all of the Jews returned to Judah after the exile. Communities of Jews remained in Persia and were there during this time. They knew about this prophecy in Numbers and looked forward to the coming of their Messiah to free them from other countries and empires that had dominated and ruled them for the last 500 years.
Seeds sown throughout the years finally ripened and bloomed along with an astrological belief: when a great leader was a born a new star would appear in the skies. It’s said this happened when Alexander the Great was born. A merging of Jewish belief and astrological teachings merge to send the Wise Men on their way to find this new king.
This time instead of invading Jerusalem, the descendants of the Babylonians, came to worship their new born king. But the Jewish establishment was not so happy to hear about this new King of the Jews. They didn’t even know where he was supposed to be born until they looked it up. The Roman appointed king, Herod, “was frightened.” Herod was a paranoid leader who had killed three of his own sons and his favorite wife to insure his own throne. And when Herod was troubled, so was Jerusalem. After it was discovered that this king was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod told the Wise Men to go and find him, then let him know, so he could go and worship himself. But Herod had other intentions.
The Wise Men went on their way and found what they were looking for again with the star guiding them. It led them to a house–yes a house, not a stable–where they found Mary and Jesus. Then these foreign strangers who were priests who served other gods, knelt down and worshiped Jesus, the king of the Jews. They gave him expensive gifts that would make a king gasp, let alone a poor peasant family. They gave frankincense, gold, and myrrh. All gifts and signs of royalty, wealth and power.
Then we are told that the Wise Men were warned in a dream not to return to Jerusalem but to go home by a different way. And that is where our text for today ends. That is because last Sunday was the Sunday when the rest of the passage is read. Infuriated, that the Wise Men had not come back and fearful of his throne, Herod sent troops to Bethlehem to slaughter boys under the age of 2. But again a dream comes–this time to Jesus’ adoptive father Joseph and tells Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt until Herod had died.
So what are we to make of this King of the Jews? Foreigners who are pagan priests travel a great distance to worship a king that has no authority over them. While the Jews (and Herod was a Jew) are frightened, troubled, and Herod attempts to have this new king assassinated. Is Jesus just the King of the Jews?
According to Matthew: no. And Matthew starts at the beginning of his gospel showing that Jesus’ coming was not just for his own people, but all people. Even the most unlikely of people: like a group of priests from a country that once enslaved Judah and worshiped many other gods and not the one God of the Jews. The people who ought to have been worshiping Jesus and proclaiming him their leader are frightened and trying to kill him. What does this say about the Son of God? What does it say about who can come to Jesus, worship, and be accepted?
As I said earlier, the Wise Men are from what is now Iraq and Iran. What would we do if an Iraqi or Irani–who was not a Christian–came to see who this Jesus person is? How would we react? What happens when people who aren’t like us come to see if this Jesus really is King and God’s Son? Do we let them worship and give the gifts they have? Or do we put certain requirements on them that they have to meet first? We have no record of Mary protesting the Wise Men worshiping Jesus or telling them how they were worshiping was wrong. Can we do the same thing for those, who like the Wise Men, come to find out about this King? It is worth noting, that in Matthew no Jews come to worship Jesus–only Gentiles and pagan Gentiles at that. What does that say to Christians who think that certain requirements need to be met before we let people worship?
And what does this say about Jesus: at this point an infant whose only concerns are being fed and sleeping? Matthew clearly announces that Jesus in not just King of the Jews. He is King to whoever comes to him. Jesus will not be Savior to only the Jews, but to everyone who will come and follow him. That is how Matthew begins his gospel and that is what happens throughout his gospel. Jesus is for everyone–not an elite few. He’s not just for the ones who carry his name and claim him as their Savior. He is for everyone: Jew, Gentile, Pagan, Muslim, and Christian. Are we ready for the Savior who will let anyone come to him no strings attached?