The magi, with their fine robes and sparkling gifts, are favorite characters in our Christmas stories and songs and decorations (even if they did show up long after the shepherds). But a careful reading of the text (Matthew 2:1-12) reveals that the magi aren’t necessarily the stars of this beloved story. Based upon stage time, significance, and speaking roles, I think we have to give King Herod at least equal billing.
It is Herod’s name we hear first. (Actually, Herod and Mary are the only named characters in the entire passage.) It is Herod who calls together the scholars and sends the magi on their way. And even when Herod is off stage it is still his threatening presence that forces the magi home by another way. We do this story a disservice when we talk about it only as the story of the magi and ignore the important role that Herod plays. It is worth paying attention to the significant contrast between Herod’s and the magi’s approach to God–and to life.
To begin with, the magi travel with others, while Herod uses others. We don’t know how many magi there were, but it’s plural, so we know there were at least two of them traveling together for a long, long time. When they arrive in Jerusalem, they seek information from others, but it seems more of a collaboration than a manipulation. Herod, on the other hand, rules alone and merely uses the chief priests and the scribes and magi to get the information he wants. He is not on a journey with anyone.
We can also note Herod’s secrecy and the openness of the magi. These strangers from the east waltz right into Jerusalem asking about the star and the new king. As one of my favorite preachers, Anna Carter Florence, points out, this is a pretty stupid move for supposedly wise men. To walk into a capital city–Herod’s capital city–and ask about the new king. So, maybe not wise. But definitely open and honest. In stark contrast to Herod who meets with the magi secretly and tells them a blatant lie.
Another difference we can see is the magi’s desire to give gifts and worship to the new king. Herod, on the other hand, is only concerned with what he can get from other people. For the magi, the giving of gifts and the giving of worship is the point of their journey. They go to some trouble to carry the gold and frankincense and myrrh with with them, just searching for the opportunity to bow down and offer the gifts.
Herod says he wants to give worship to the child. But we know this is not true. Even if we have no historical knowledge, we soon learn of Herod’s command to kill all of the boys two years old and younger–which tips us off to the previous lie. The original readers and hearers of Matthew’s Gospel would have spotted the lie right away. They would know that Herod himself had held the title “King of the Jews” since about 40 B.C. and that he had killed many–including his own son–in order to keep his power and his titles. There is no way that Herod plans to give worship–or anything else–to this supposed new king.
All of these differences between the magi and Herod stem from one basic difference in the way the they approach life: the magi base their lives on faith, while Herod bases his life on fear.
We don’t have to read between the lines at all to know that Herod was afraid. Matthew tells us clearly: “When Kind Herod heard [that the magi were looking for the child who had been born King of the Jews], he was frightened.” And not only was Herod frightened, but all of Jerusalem was frightened too. Maybe because they knew how this particular king dealt with his fear. They had seen the violence and death he caused in the past and anticipated the slaughter that was to come.
It is Herod’s fear that causes him to act alone, to be secretive, to constantly try to get things from others.
The magi, though, operate on faith. I’m not talking about an orthodox Christian faith. But a faith that there is something bigger and better in the world–and a faith that they are invited to be part of it, even though they don’t quite understand it. It is this faith that draws their eyes to the heavens in the first place. And this faith that sparks their journey.
When the star stops over a common house where a simple Jewish family lives, they must have been surprised. Yet they recognize the child as the Messiah and offer their gifts to him. This openness to the unexpected takes faith; it takes a trust in God, a trust that God is bigger than our preconceived notions, that God can work beyond our expectations and understanding.
I pray that this year you will be able to set aside your fear and live lives of faith. Lives that are grounded in community. Lives that are open and honest. Lives that are generous in giving. Amen.
This reflection is edited from a sermon I preached in 2013.
And here is a link to last year’s Epiphany sermon.