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This Saturday, the lectionary invites us to reflect on the passage to which the English Standard Version supplies the title “The Visit of the Wise Men.” It’s found in the Gospel according to Matthew, 2:1-12.
Matthew begins his gospel with the words “the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1:1).
He connects Jesus with Abraham to establish Jesus’ Jewishness, but there’s an irony in his genealogy. Four non-Jews, or Gentiles, are included. These are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.
He connects Jesus with David to establish Jesus’ kingship, as predicted by Jewish prophets over a span of hundreds of years and recorded in multiple places in the Bible.
The genealogy includes many kings. It ends with Joseph, husband of Mary, and therefore the earthly father of Jesus.
Directly after presenting the genealogy, Matthew speaks of Joseph, whom he says was a just or righteous man.
But again, there’s irony. Because a righteous man would have exposed a fiancé who had become pregnant before marriage. Sex before marriage carried the penalty of stoning to death. It’s written in the book of Deuteronomy (22:13-21). But Joseph didn’t expose Mary. Instead, he married her.
Why? Because of a message he received in a dream, from an angel. The angel had addressed him as “son of David.” The angel had told him the father of the baby in Mary’s womb was the Holy Spirit. And that the baby was the “saviour,” the Messiah anticipated by the prophets. Matthew even quotes the prophetic saying that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”
That’s the background to the twelve verses in the gospel reading for this Sunday. The reading is a passage in which Matthew unashamedly, even brazenly, declares another ironic thing: the just or righteous, law-abiding parents of Jesus received gifts of great value from – wait for it – astrologers, people who predict the future by looking at the stars!
It’s ironic because astrology, although commonly practiced at the time, was strictly forbidden to Jews. In fact, the irony is deep, because Matthew presents the astrologers as “wise men,” as men who recognized who Jesus was. I mean, how could men who practice a forbidden art be wise?
The English Standard Version, in a footnote, tells us the word it translates as “wise men” is “magi” in the Greek used by Matthew.
The Bible tells us of “magi,” a priestly caste of Medes who claimed they could interpret dreams. The book of Daniel tells us they, unlike Jewish Daniel, couldn’t ‘see’ and interpret the dreams of king Nebuchadnezzar.
Bible scholar Frank Gaebelain says that in the time of Jesus, the word ‘magi’ was used for “a wide variety of men interested in dreams, astrology, magic, books thought to contain mysterious references to the future, and the like.” He adds that some of them were honest inquirers, but many were practitioners of the arts of deception.
Many uses of “magi” in New Testament times are uncomplimentary. For example, the false prophet Bar-Jesus, whom we’re told about in chapter 13 of the book of Acts.
Bible scholar R T France says:
“However widely respected the magi may have been in Mesopotamia and more widely in the Greek and Roman world, their title was not one which a careful Christian would willingly introduce without warrant into his account of the origins of his faith.”
Clearly, Matthew wouldn’t speak of the “magi” unless they had actually come to Herod in Jerusalem and gone on to pay homage to Jesus six miles down the road in Bethlehem. But since “magi” were viewed so negatively, why not be silent about them – like the other evangelists, Mark, Luke, and John?
The answer lies in “how” Matthew uses the event.
Matthew contrasts the Jewish wise men, the scribes, and the Pharisees, with the Gentile, foolish, magi. He uses the contrast to display true righteousness, to highlight behaviour which pleases God.
In a five-point outline, Bible scholar Rodney Reeves powerfully exposes “how wrong” the magi are:
One, the magi don’t belong to God’s elect.
Two, the magi act like they know what the God of Israel is up to simply because they can “read” the stars.
Three, the magi show up at the wrong place – Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem – looking for the Messiah, awakening the jealous rage of a crazed ruler.
Four, the magi give away their treasures to a complete stranger without confirming his identity (perhaps putting the little family at risk — after all, gold attracts thieves), and
Five, the magi went straight home (because of a dream!) and never returned to check on their investment.
Those five points of foolishness make explicit why the fools, those who don’t have the right ancestors, those who look to the stars for prophecies, those who don’t look in the Bible, are in fact the wise men.
The magi were fascinated by what they saw in the stars. They travelled a great distance. They made many enquiries. They brought gifts. They bowed down and worshipped. They were filled with joy.
Unlike the scribes and Pharisees who, though they knew from their scriptures that the Messiah was to be of the line of David and born in Bethlehem, didn’t even bother to accompany the magi on the last leg of their journey to meet the one born king of the Jews.
Matthew didn’t hide the astrologers because he saw what God had done through them. God had used the astrologers, the “wrongly guided,” to show just how self-serving, blind, and faithless the scribes and Pharisees, the leaders of his “chosen people” had become.
In the English Standard Version, the phrase “scribes and Pharisees” occurs 20 times in the gospels. 11 of them are in Matthew’s gospel. In chapter 23, we read that Jesus addressed seven woes to them.
Like many of us, the scribes and Pharisees were called to be worshippers, witnesses, guides.
Let’s strive to be righteous not according to the law only, but also according to grace and mercy. Let’s be open to guidance through angels, dreams and those we consider unwise. Let’s recognize that God may use the foolish to shame us.
Peace be with you.
 This is not to deny that there were some Jews who practiced astrology. The photo accompanying this column is of a zodiac sign dating from the 6 th century, found in a synagogue in Beit Alpha, Israel. Many Christians, most famously Luther’s close collaborator Melanchthon, practiced astrology. Luther mocked astrology.
 The magi only saw Jesus as king of the Jews. They didn’t see him as king of the whole earth, saviour of all mankind. Neither did the scribes and Pharisees.