Lectionary Commentaries for January 6, 2019
Epiphany of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12

Niveen Sarras

The image of the wise men on the Christmas cards is different than what we have in the Bible.

We see them paying baby Jesus homage and offering him gifts. We see three persons wearing crowns. The evangelist Matthew does not tell us that they were three men or three kings.

The term Magi is a plural form of magoi in Greek language, which means Zoroastrian priests.1 They were neither kings nor wise men. Maybe they earned the title wise men because of their skills in interpreting dreams and understanding astrology. They were well known for telling fortunes and preparing daily horoscopes. They were scholars of their day and enjoyed access to the Persian emperor. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world which is still active in Iran today. It was the official religion of Persia before Islam.

The primary prophet for Zoroastrianism is Zoroaster. Zoroastrians believe that he was miraculously conceived in the womb of a 15-year-old Persian virgin.2 Like Jesus, Zoroaster started his ministry at age of 30 after he defeated all Satan’s temptations.3 He predicts that “other virgins would conceive additional divinely appointed prophets as history unfolded.”4 Zoroastrian priests believe that they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars.5 Like the Jews, Zoroastrian priests were anticipating the birth of the true Savior.

The evangelist Matthew tells us that Zoroastrian priests followed the star of Bethlehem to Jesus’ birthplace to assure his audience that Jesus is a fulfillment not only of Old Testament prophecy of the virgin birth, but also Zoroastrian virgin birth prophecies. The Gentile Magi recognize Jesus’ divinity and kingship. Matthew presents Jesus as the expected King of the Jews and the Gentiles. It was important for Matthew to show that the Magi went to Bethlehem not Rome to look for the King of the Jews, the Messiah. Matthew’s audience understood the Persians to be a long-standing religious and political ally against Rome.6

Matthew starts his gospel by showing a contrast between the Gentiles and Jewish secular and religious leaders. The Magi “knelt down and paid him homage.” (verse 11), but King Herod the Great wanted to kill him. Matthew wants to show throughout his gospel that Jewish leaders rejected Jesus and oppressed him, but the Gentiles accepted him.

King Herod becomes greatly troubled to hear from the Magi that the new king for the Jews is born. He felt threatened and worried about his throne. Herod was not appointed by Rome, the biggest enemy of the Jews. He was not a Jew, but an Idumean whose ancestors converted to Judaism. He knew from the chief priests and teachers of the law that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem in Judea, and he must come from the Davidic line. King Herod does not meet the biblical messianic criteria. He was already paranoid about any potential rival to his throne.  “He sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (verse 16).

The Magi give Jesus three gifts. Gold is a sign of kingship, long associated with the gods, and frankincense represents wisdom and myrrh is a sign of long life and healing.7 Frankincense was and still a costly incense and myrrh was a prized perfume. These gifts were usually given to a king or a person with high status. For example, the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon and gave him precious gifts: “Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan — with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones” (1 Kings 10:2). The spices that she brought with her might be frankincense and myrrh.

The Magi’s gifts could be an allusion to King Solomon, the son of King David. Matthew uses the story of the Magi to emphasize that Jesus is the true king of the Jews and he is the descendant of King David. In Matthew’s eyes, Jesus is superior not only to King Herod the great but also superior to King Solomon, the wisest King in Israel. Jesus is the incarnated Son of God.

We begin Epiphany season learning about the Magi’s declaration of Jesus as a divine person and a King. The story teaches us that Jesus is our King and we should put him first in our life. The Magi could collude with King Herod, but for them Jesus Christ is greater and more powerful than Herod. They endured a long journey from Persia to Bethlehem to meet Jesus, the King. They risked their lives for the sake of Jesus. They rejoiced when they met him. Matthew tells us that they paid Jesus homage, not Herod. Are we willing to put Jesus first in our lives? This is a personal question that requires a thoughtful response.


  1. Courtney Roberts, The Star of the Magi: the Mystery That Heralded the Coming of Christ (Franklin Lakes: New Page Books, 2007), 19.
  2. S A. Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research (Montreal, Que.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993), 11.
  3. Nigosian, 11.
  4. Paul Fink, Comparing and Evaluating the Scriptures (Lompoc: Summerland Publishing, 2011), 30.
  5. Fink, 30.
  6. Roberts, 20.
  7. Tricia McCannon, Jesus: the Explosive Story of the Thirty Lost Years and the Ancient Mystery Religions (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Pub. Company, 2010), 252.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

We often call it the “bridge.” We look at the gap, or chasm, between the text and the contemporary situation, while wondering how we can leap from the inspiring words of scripture to the present reality.

How do we treat the differences in customs, language, political situation, scientific knowledge between the biblical writers and the situation now? How do we maintain the hopeful expectancy after so many centuries? If we look at the distance between today’s reading and the contemporary situation, we will see a wide chasm, but one worth making the leap, or building the bridge. The chasm exists in the details and the emotions of the text. Yet the prophet gives us a word for today.

The prophet of this part of Isaiah fills his page with stirring, glorious promises. He combines imperatives with affirmations. He exhorts the readers to “arise, shine.” These words almost certainly came to dispirited readers. The problems of returning from the Babylonian exile had worn them down. They felt insignificant against the world powers. They seemed at the mercy of Persian bureaucracy. They couldn’t get along with each other. Into that mix, the prophet (known as III Isaiah) calls on the people to “arise.” From their despair, they should lift themselves up.

Next come the astonishing affirmations. The world and its people live in darkness. Even though the NRSV has darkness twice, the second term (“thick darkness,” NRSV) connotes a cloud over the people. The darkness and the cloud represent the separation of the nations from Judah’s God. The glory of the Lord will rise (different root than the imperative in verse 1) upon the people. If the Lord has seemed distant and unresponsive, the people will experience the Lord’s glory. God’s presence will be available to them. Then, the nations that have seemed to have the upper hand will come to the Judean people for light.

The second stanza also begins with an imperative, to lift up the eyes and look around. God will bring back the exiles, both sons and daughters. Although this passage likely was written after the Judeans had begun to return, this verse reminds the people of God’s act to restore the community. It promises that God will continue to build the community and bring it together, even if it seems in conflict now. This experience will cause such joy that the people will feel a glow from within. (If you have a chance to check the Tanak, the Jewish Publication Society translation, it renders verse 5a in a memorable way.)

The nations will then bring their wealth to the people of Judah. From both land and sea, the nations will bring their treasures. The nations will bring a multitude of animals as well as precious metals and spices. One suspects that the lectionary committee chose this passage for this Sunday because of verse 6, which promises “gold and frankincense,” the gifts of the magi to the young (but almost certainly not the new-born) Jesus. The committee left off verse 7, which adds the element of worship. The animals brought by the nations will become part of worship for the Lord. The temple, once destroyed, shall again offer worship to the Lord.

What can the twenty-first century preacher do with this passage? The grand promises the prophet made to the people never actually happened in history. The nations did not bring the treasure of the sea and all of their animals, along with gold and frankincense to Judea. We can’t promise our churches that the nations will bring their wealth today. The list of animals would not resonate with people today.

The passage sounds out of touch and unrealistic. It sounds terribly out of date. If we try to preach the surface meaning of the text, we would more likely elicit scoffs instead of deeper faith. The people know perfectly well that the world will not bring its wealth to the church. We are lucky to scrape up enough money to pay our bills and help a few people.

We have more here to work with than just “background” to the visit of the magi to baby Jesus, however. To get at that, we might notice that the poem reverses the movement we have come to expect. Usually sermons exhort the congregation to take the light to the world. This passage promises that the nations will come to God’s people for light because they find their darkness so oppressive. We can proclaim from this stirring poem that God remains at work in the world. If we lift up our eyes, if we arise and do our ministry, we will find the ways that God acts to dispel the darkness of the world. God works among the people of the world before the church begins its ministry. We have grace and hope that the world needs.

After Christmas, in the new year, the church arises to its mission and looks out at the world to see where God has been at work among the nations. However strong the darkness, we take heart. However powerful the rest of the world seems, God has chosen to work through the church. When we recognize the need of the world, the glory of God, we can arise out of any stupor and engage in our ministry.


Commentary on Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Beth L. Tanner

The Greek meaning of “epiphany” means to reveal or uncover.

Yet every season, Jesus is “uncovered” or “revealed” twice.  Luke “reveals” the identity of the Baby in the songs of the angels, so we celebrated Jesus as Lord twelve days ago. Then, Luke moved on quickly and last week Jesus was twelve and visiting the Temple with his parents. It seems a step back to join the Wise Men this morning for the celebration of Epiphany or the “revealing” of the Baby as the King of the Jews.

Is there a difference between LORD of All and King? We could easily dismiss this as semantics, but there is an important distinction.  As Lord, Jesus is understood as apart from us, something different, with only God and the celestial beings. The title of King moves into the realm of humans. It is about politics and power and communities and individuals. Remember it was not Jesus as Lord which threatened Herod and the Romans and the Jewish Leaders. It was the declaration of Jesus as King that ultimately led to the cross.

So, if today is about the politics of Jesus as King, there is no better psalm than that of Psalm 72. This psalm is understood by most scholars to be a coronation hymn for the King of Judah.  It speaks of the prayers of all of the people for the king and the importance of understanding the king’s role in relationship to his God and the people.

The psalm opens with a plea “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son (verse 1).” The king is to administer God’s justice and God’s righteousness, not his own. This defines the relationship between God and the king. The king is to be God’s representative or conduit on earth. The ruler is a servant of the Lord, not a political God unto himself.

The psalm continues with wishes for the king’s reign, but these are not about political treaties or great infrastructure or law and order. The wishes are for the king to judge in righteousness and with justice for the poor. The psalm is concerned with how the king governs the people with the same words used in verse one “justice” and “righteousness.” The wishes are not action items or a political platform, but a view of the world and one’s people. In other words, it is about the king’s heart from which springs action. Verse 3 connects the righteous reign of the king with “mountains yielding prosperity and the hills, in righteousness.” This is a view of all of God’s creation living in harmony and both the land and the people prosper. God is in control and the king manages the kingdom as God’s agent.

Verse 4 is the heart of the job description of the human ruler. “May he [or she] defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” The king’s job is to assure the poor and needy are given care and concern and that he defends them with force if necessary. He is not to wage war for booty or territory but only against those who threated the weak. Pearl Buck wrote in The Good Earth, “the test of a civilization is the way it cares for its helpless members.” Quotes like it have been attributed to others. Did the idea come from the Bible or is this simply the measure of a responsible society regardless of nationality or religion? Either way these words in Psalm 72 make it the responsibility of the king, and since he is the ruler to care for the helpless, by extension it also becomes the responsibility of all the people to do the same.         

Verses 3-7 provides wishes for the long life of this king and that he be like the rain falling on the grass. In the arid regions of Judah and Israel, the winter rains bring life and are necessary for the land and the people to prosper. The rain is a blessing from God.  The king is to be the same, God’s blessing to the people.

In verses 10-11, kings of other nations come to Jerusalem to pay homage to the king. The usual reason for a king to bow down to another king is as an acknowledgement of the first king’s power and privilege.  A king bows to another king because he has been defeated or is a vassal. But Psalm 72: 11-12 states “May all the kings fall down before him, all nations give him service FOR he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and needy and saves the lives of the needy.” The kings bow before him not because of power, or military strength, or wealth. They bow before the king because of his justice ways. Note that most English Bibles separate the adoration of the kings from the cause of their adoration. Verse 11 is a dependent clause of verse 10. It is the reason the king is honored.

Each leader of Judah failed to live up to this job description. Human self-interest and power often cloud our vision. Eventually, Jesus was the only one who could fulfill these words. But the intent of the psalm does not end with King Jesus but stands as a call to all of God’s people. Ours is not a religion focused only in the spiritual realm, but in the flesh and blood world. It is political because it is our duty to help the weakest among us and to assure a just society and nation.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12

Israel Kamudzandu

The need for unity and equality continues to paralyze both the human family and the Church.

In Ephesians 3: 1-12 the believer is confronted by the apostle Paul’s prayer for the Church to be open to the mystery, power, and a new form of identity believers share in Christ Jesus. The prayer is oriented toward Gentiles but in reality, it is to inform believers of the mission of God’s grace to invite both Jews and Gentiles into the Church. As strangers and aliens to one another, Christ’s death and resurrection made it possible for humanity to relate to each other on the basis of Christ. It is no wonder then that, Paul repeats the word “mystery,” to signal to Gentiles and all nations that God’s plan if not dream has always been to unite all peoples into one name. It is through Jesus Christ that the Church is able to be the arena to reveal God’s plan in and around the world.

While Paul interprets his calling to the Gentiles, he also points to the “mystery” of God revealed to him and empowered him to preach the gospel. The same mystery is accessible to all who are eager to understand God’s plan into the world and the church is the authentic place where God’s mystery revealed. First, the mystery is revealed when reconciliation is made possible and inevitably invites all peoples to understand themselves to be fellow heirs and participants in building the Kingdom of God. The calling of the Church as a gift to all humanity is the hallmark of Ephesians 3: 1-12, and it is also an invitation to the 21st century Church to view itself as a sacramental missional, evangelical and spiritual place.

Like Paul, clergy leaders and believers are called to be grasped by the amazing mystery of the reconciliation of hostile nations and allow themselves to be moved to prayer through which God’s strength and power through the Holy Spirit may move forward with the ministry of God’s Kingdom. Christologically, believers are invited to be open to the Holy Spirit through whom faith is made manifest and the spirit’s power is manifested in and through all that they do. That said, the Church is indeed unique in that God’s salvation and revelation of the Holy Spirit are made manifest in the and through the reconciling ministry of the Gospel.

Without reconciliation of nations, peoples, tribes, ethnicities and genders, ‘the knowledge and fullness of God,’ will remain a mystery even to the leaders of the Church. It is when people experience reconciliation that they become part of the Church and eventually be drawn into the work of peace, justice and love. In other words, Ephesians 3: 1-12 calls the 21st century to reexamine the nature of its existence and possibly to come to the realization that a self-existing church will not last.

The mission of the Church is to make God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit known into the world and across the globe. In all its facets, Ephesians calls believers to a life of love manifested in the welcoming and accepting all peoples. As the message of the New Testament centers on God’s mission of uniting all humanity, so does Ephesians in that the “mystery of God” is a clarion call to authentic witness in a world of tragic disconnections and chaos. Falling down on our knees in prayer like what Paul did with the hope of experiencing harmony among Global nations is the call of Ephesians.

The Church is indeed the place where we can dream to experience and witness the fullness of God’s purposes unfolding and hence calling us into the God’s salvation and formation of an authentic ecclesial community.