Wise Men From the East
Wise Men From the East
January 7, 2018
So, if you were here on Christmas Eve, or especially, Christmas Eve morning, you know that my epiphany arrived early. It had to do with the phrase, “There was no room for them…” that we find in the Gospel of Luke’s birth narrative. Mary and Joseph arrive at an inn but there is no room for them so Mary gives birth to Jesus in a barn, right? Well, that’s what we have been taught but it may not be what the text says. A close examination of the Greek by people far smarter than me reveals that the word that is popularly translated as an “inn” may be more accurately translated as being an upper room or a guest room. It is the word that is later used for the space where Jesus and the disciples celebrate the Passover/Last Supper meal—which never gets translated as an inn. The text never mentions a barn at all, just a manger—a feeding trough for animals.
Houses in a place like Bethlehem would have had two rooms. The family would have lived in the downstairs room. Almost all of those downstairs rooms would have had a lower space which was used to house their animals at night. The upstairs room would have been used for storage and for housing the occasional guest. (If having animals in your home seems strange, let’s all stop a moment in this land of dogs and cats and guinea pigs and gerbils and fish and consider just how many animals live with us…)
Rather than just not getting a room at the Motel 6, or being excluded because they were out-of-towners or too poor, the story is about inclusion. There was no space in the guest room, so they were invited into the family’s living space: “Stay down here with us.” Presumably, these would have been Joseph’s relatives, being hospitable to him and to Mary at the end of her pregnancy. And the manger? Historians tell us that it would not have been unusual to wrap a child in spare cloth and use the manger as a crib.
What Luke was telling his audience was a story of hospitality in which those in need were welcomed into a home and cared for. What Luke would go on to tell us is the story of that child becoming a man who would teach us to be loving, compassionate people who feed the hungry and clothe the naked and shelter those with no homes. What Luke would tell us is the story of a man who, along with his disciples, would rely on that kindness and compassion for food and shelter throughout his ministry.
Epiphanies are moments of sudden insight which challenge our assumptions and lead us to see things differently. Having offered you the chance to rethink the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, I want to challenge you to see the wise men differently, too…
Question what you think you know! How many wise men were there? Three, right…expect in the Union Church pageant this year when we had four. Wrong! Look at the text… It just says, “wise men from the East.” There is no number given. Well…at least we know that they were astrologers or astronomers or professors or royal people, right? Wrong! Again, all the text says is that they were, “wise men.” O.k. then…but we know their names, right? Balthasar and Melchior and Gaspar. It’s right there on the internet…so it has to be true! Nope…we made that part up—not for bad reasons. People use their imaginations to bring things to life. After a while, things we imagined seem like facts…but they aren’t.
Here is all we know. Wise men from the East come to Jerusalem. Right out of the box, we have to think to ourselves, “They may be wise but they sure don’t seem all that smart.” First, it turns out that they have been following a star for hundreds of miles. Second, they waltz right into the court of Israel’s nut job of a king—Herod—and ask him where his successor has been born. (Herod being the king who was known for killing his own family members if he thought they had aspirations to replace him.) If these men are smart then they must be book smart and dumb as rocks when it comes to how the world works.
So, Herod goes into a frenzy. Why? He has already been driven mad in the way that power drives many people mad—they become desperate to hold onto the power that they have. This is the hour he has always feared. He calls in his religious experts and asks their opinion on where the child would be born. They say, “Bethlehem.” He cozies up to the wise men and tells them that there’s nothing that he would like more than to pay a little “tribute” to this child himself: “So, come back and let me know so that I can pay my respects!”
The wise men leave Herod behind and keep following the star, which stops over, “the place where the child was.” And what was that place? A barn full of animals and surrounded by shepherds and the day was December 25th, right? Wrong! The place is a house. That’s what Matthew says. Interestingly, even though they are really wise men, Matthew doesn’t tell us what they think. He doesn’t record their theory on this child’s origins or his destiny. Instead, Matthew just tells us what they feel: they feel joy! Then, Matthew tells us what they do—they enter the house and kneel before the child. In Matthew’s Gospel, they are the first people to worship Christ.
If we were Matthew’s original audience, this would stop us in our tracks. Why? We would be slack jawed because these men are foreigners. Forget that they are wise. They are not one of us. They are not a part of God’s chosen people. In a culture that treats foreigners as suspects… (everyone pause for a self-critical moment here!)…the foreigners are the first faithful people! And before they have a chance to see the child, they are welcomed into the house, even though, by rule, foreigners would have been ignored, even though foreigners, by rule, would have never been welcomed into someone’s home, even though a woman alone with her child (there is no mention of Joseph) would have never welcomed strange men into her home much less men who were strangers and foreigners. Rules and norms are being broken left and right—rules and norms often presented as God’s rules—all in the service of serving God. God is working through the least likely of folks in ways that would have offended almost everyone. (Honestly, this seems to be God’s m.o.!)
As they kneel, the wise men offer gifts which are heavy in their foreshadowing: gold, frankincense and myrrh. For anyone who knew the ending of the story, the gold had to conjure up images of Judas selling Jesus out for a bag full of silver. The man who would align himself with the poor was given gold at his birth. He was also given the spices that were typically used for preparing a body for burial, the very kind of spices that the women would have taken with them to the empty tomb. There is not a rattle or a stuffed camel or a Cubs onesie in sight. Strange gifts, indeed…
Think about these wise men, though. They are wise but their greatest moment is not a paper published or some research completed. Their finest hour begins with curiosity. From the moment we are born, we are curious about the world. We observe and absorb so many things. If we are lucky, we have teachers in our lives who keep that thirst alive in us, finding so many different ways to say to us, “Aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to know? Let’s find out together…” The open question is how far we can walk in life until we decide we have seen and done it all. How long will we allow that curiosity to drive us before we “grow up” and no longer pay attention?
Remember, this child will grow up and tell his disciples that if they want to enter the kingdom of heaven, they have to become like children. I think that part of what he meant was that they needed to be open and observant and curious about the world around them because that is the pathway to wonder and awe and joy. Jesus wasn’t calling them to become “child-ish.” He was calling them to become “child-like.” Being curious enough to do something as indefensible as following a star is what led the wise men along a path of wonder and awe and gave them the chance to kneel before this child and be overwhelmed with joy.
Of course, another aspect of that child-like way of being is the wise men’s willingness to be “clueless.” A child is oblivious to all the do’s and don’ts, to the right and wrong things to say. The child just asks the obvious question: “Where did that man’s hair go? How come it all fell out?” Part of parenting is teaching that there is a time and a place and that politeness matters which, for most of us, leads us to overcorrect. We become like those religious leaders in Herod’s court who are the moral and religious consultants to one of the more hideous leaders in Israel’s history. We know something about what is right and wrong but what we want most is to not say something that might offend someone or get us in trouble. (Haven’t we all been guilty of that at some point?) A philosopher might speak of this alternative as a “post-critical naiveté.” We might just say that the wise men have grown past “all that.” They just ask the obvious question: “Hey…where’s the newborn king?” The mission is what matters…
So the wise men are, in fact, wise enough to be child-like. They go the distance. They risk asking the hard question. They follow a star all the way to—not a palace, not a barn—but a house, where they are welcomed. They drop to their knees and know joy. And then, in the final child-like moment, they listen to a dream. They are spontaneous enough to change their plans for no reason that the world would ever validate. They listen to their hearts and know they need to go back by another way.
The wise men aren’t who we’ve been taught they are. They are too smart to play by Herod’s rules and too faithful to not see the child for who he is. They are so wise that they choose to be like a child—open to joy, willing to feel wonder, ready to go wherever they are led. May God make us all curious and clueless and spontaneous. May God make us all wise like a child again.