Lectionary Commentaries for January 6, 2008
Epiphany of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12

Mark Allan Powell

The story of the magi foreshadows later developments in Matthew’s narrative. Even in infancy Jesus inspires both worship and hostility, responses that are repeated throughout the story.

Worship – The magi represent the first of many characters to worship Jesus in Matthew (2:11; compare 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:9, 17), a point that may be obscured in English Bibles that choose a soft translation for proskyne´o. In this Gospel, the latter word refers to a type of devotion shown only to God (Matt 4:11). Thus, the attribution of worship to Jesus here and elsewhere in Matthew has Christological significance, marking Jesus as the one in whom God is present (1:23).

Hostility – The story also foreshadows the opposition that will be shown to Jesus by the powerful people of his day. In this story, the religious leaders of Israel do the bidding of a political ruler who wishes to destroy Jesus. Later the situation will be ironically reversed: the political ruler (Pilate) will do the bidding of religious leaders who have decided Jesus must die (27:1-2, 11-26).

A literary masterpiece, this brief episode in Matthew’s story has captured the imagination of Christians for centuries and inspired the formation of numerous legends. The magi came to be identified as kings, probably due to an association of this passage with Isaiah 60:3, part of our First Lesson for today. They came to be called “wise men,” an identification so pervasive that it is even used in English translations of the Bible (including NRSV). In the Middle Ages, the Western Church decided there were three magi (the Eastern church has twelve) and assigned them names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

Such legends are not insignificant for Christian piety, but they may distract us from the story Matthew tells. Matthew’s story is indeed about kings and wise men, but these figures are people other than the magi. The kings in Matthew 2 are Herod and Jesus. Herod exemplifies the sort of king whom Jesus later denounces in Matthew 20:25. He is a tyrant who lords over those he rules rather than serving them. He is not a ruler who “shepherds” God’s people (v. 6). By contrast, the infant king Jesus is helpless and vulnerable, a ruler whose power is hidden in humility (compare 21:5). The wise men in Matthew 2 are the chief priests and the scribes who function as Herod’s key advisors. Learned in the scriptures, they possess academic knowledge that both Herod and the magi lack. But what good does it do them? It does not lead them to their Messiah but causes them to become involved in a plot to kill him.

Responsible exegesis has always resisted the identification of the magi as kings, but it is the identification of the magi as “wise men” that may ultimately be more problematic: a major theme in Matthew is that God does not reveal things to “the wise and intelligent” (11:25). Such withholding of revelation, furthermore, is actually evident in this text, but only with regard to the chief priests and scribes, the true “wise men” in the story.

If the magi are not kings or wise men, what are they? In Matthew’s narrative, kings are contrasted with servants (20:25-28) and wise men are contrasted with infants (11:25). The magi in Matthew 2 are depicted as persons who do as they are instructed, who seek no honor for themselves, and who gladly humble themselves, kneeling even before a woman and a child. Clearly, they fit the image of servants better than that of kings. Surprisingly, they also embody perfectly the two traits that are ascribed to infants in Matthew’s story. They are persons to whom God reveals what is hidden (11:25) and from whom God derives worship or praise (21:16). If Jesus as a literal infant is contrasted here with Herod, the magi as metaphorical infants may be contrasted with Herod’s advisors, the wise men of Israel.

In short, the central message of this text may be framed as an answer to the question, whom does God favor? Not kings or wise men, but the magi who embody qualities that this Gospel will declare antithetical to the traits of the royal and the wise. Ironically, in recasting the story so that the magi actually become kings or wise men, readers subvert the message until the text actually supports notions it was intended to suppress. But we must not be arrogant in judging such tendencies too harshly. They tell us that the message of this text has been a hard one to hear. It still is.

A common theme in the three lessons appointed for this day is the manifestation of God to people outside the religious community. Isaiah reminds the community of its call to be a light to the nations and destroys the false dichotomy between internal and external ministry by suggesting that expansion and restoration are integrally connected. The author of Ephesians suggests that the ultimate purpose of God is the unification of humanity in a truly multicultural community where all distinctions between “insiders” and “outsiders” have vanished. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us that such distinctions began to erode with the coming of Christ, who was revealed to some who were thought to be on the outside and paradoxically rejected by many who were thought to be on the inside. The church’s observance of epiphany ought not be a triumphal occasion for those who have seen the light to celebrate their privileged status. The lessons appointed for this day encourage humble admission that God’s glory may be manifested where we least expect it. Sometimes God’s people become light for others (Isa. 60:3; Eph. 3:10); sometimes they appear blind to the light others can see (Matt. 2:1-6). But always, the light is there, as God graciously, mysteriously, and defiantly breaks into human lives.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6

Christine Roy Yoder

Bleak midwinter seems a fitting stage for this lectionary text that likely dates to the early days of Israel’s return from Babylonian captivity. Those days are cast easily in hues of grey — the city of Jerusalem and its temple yet in ruins, the community rag-tag and divided, the once proud monarchy now a small colony on the fringe of the Persian Empire. 

One imagines worry, like a wet chill, settling deep in the bones, and hope struggling in darkness. But the prophet known as Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66) pierces the gloom with a brilliant light: a vision of God’s glory transforming the world, a promise that God restores God’s people to wellbeing and calls all people home. Addressing Israel in the second person feminine singular (suggestive of Daughter Zion in Second Isaiah, e.g., 49:13-50:3; 51:12-52:12; 54:1-17), the prophet announces the reversal of her fortune in two units (Isa 60:1-3, 4-7), each of which opens with a double imperative (“arise, shine!” and “lift up.see!”).

Having just declared that God is coming as Redeemer (Isa 59:20), the prophet summons Israel to “Arise! Shine!” and explains immediately why: “for your light has come” (60:1a). “Your light,” the parallel in 60:1b indicates, is “the glory of the LORD,” God’s presence which, like a sun or bright star, rises over the people, showering them in light. God is the source of their renewed vitality. At the same time, “your light” evokes Israel’s revived splendor. The community shimmers with light. Israel is radiant (e.g., “shine!” 60:1; “be radiant,” 60:5). As God’s glory transforms Israel, it transforms the whole world. Thick darkness envelops formerly powerful nations. And “nations” and “kings” stream to Israel, the beacon of God’s glory, the bright dawn of a new day (e.g., Isa 2:1-5). Indeed, “your light” literarily frames and restrains the darkness (60:1b, 2d).

Two imperatives-“Lift up your eyes! See!”-urge Israel to witness the unexpected homecoming (60:4-7; cf. 49:18a). With repetition of “all (of them)” and verbs of ingathering (e.g., the verb “to come” occurs four times, the verb “to gather” twice), the prophet depicts the event as all-encompassing. “Your sons.and your daughters” likely refers to exiles who had not returned or been allowed to return home. Their approach from far away, with the next generation cradled in the arms of nurses, inspires joy (60:5). Moreover, the nations come and, ostensibly of their own freewill, bring all of their wealth with them. For the first time in a long time, Israel receives treasure rather than paying it as tribute or tax to other nations. Midian and Ephah signify the great camel riders and caravan traders of the desert (e.g., Gen 25:4; 37:25-36; Judges 6-8). Sheba recalls the lavish gift of gold, spices, and precious stones given to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10; 2 Chronicles 9). Kedar is renowned for sheep-breeding (e.g., Ezek 27:21). And “gold and frankincense” are valued treasures (e.g., Exod 30:34); indeed, the Magi later bring the same to honor the Christ child (Matt 2:11). The in-pouring of nations and outpouring of their abundance sparks Israel’s delight (60:5)-indeed, her heart “opens wide” (NRSV “rejoices”), an expression that aptly conveys the restorative power of happiness.

It is imperative to note the abundance flows to Israel not to fill its coffers or appease its leadership. Rather, the world carries its wealth from afar, as do the Magi in Matthew (2:1-12), so that they might “proclaim the praise of the LORD” (60:6). God’s glory illumines a new day and in praise of God’s glory peoples from everywhere devote their finest goods. The prophet’s vision of God’s restoration thus ends with the renewal of worship-sheep and rams for the altar, and God’s promise to glorify again God’s glorious house, the temple (60:7). The whole world gathers to be part of God’s future.

So testify this Epiphany to the in-breaking, world-inverting power of God’s glory-to the radiant light that by no effort of human will or ingenuity, has come for the sake of everyone (cf. Eph 3:1-12). That light enables the forgotten and hopeless to rise to their feet. That light prompts nations and kings to pay homage. It is to that light we make our way in midwinter, bringing all that we have to kneel before God.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12

Craig R. Koester

“Mystery” is the term that runs throughout this passage from Ephesians. It fits the day in the liturgical year because an “epiphany” is a manifestation of something. And in this case what is revealed has been a mystery.

The term “mystery” appears several times in just a few verses, helping to catch the attention of readers. After all, many of us find it hard to resist a good mystery. Paul says that a mystery has been made known to him (3:3). And it is a mystery about Jesus (3:4). No one has really understood this mystery before. It has been hidden through the ages (3:9). So those who listen in will come to know the mystery. Thus far the passage has all the makings of a new version of a bestselling novel. We might even give it a title like “The Jesus Code.” Apparently God also knows that we like a good mystery.

Traditional mysteries often follow a set form. The classic mysteries are set in a manor house in Scotland with a small cast of characters: an elderly widow, a servant with peculiar habits, and a distant relative who has inexplicably shown up for a visit after many years. The usual event is a tragic death, which turns out to be a murder. As the detective investigates the case, he often finds that there is intrigue going on over who is to receive a sizable inheritance. The clues in the case are assembled. The police are confused and follow the wrong track. But eventually the master detective solves the case and shows how the pieces of the story fit together. In the final pages, the mystery is solved. The meaning is made known to the readers. The story is over.

The mystery that Paul speaks will depart from the standard patterns of a mystery story in at least three ways: first, the heart of the story is not something tragic, like theft and murder, but something magnificent, namely a gift. To be sure, this is an inheritance case. Paul is speaking about the Gentiles coming into the inheritance of salvation. But in a typical mystery story, one of the heirs to an estate usually plots to seize the whole inheritance. The idea is to exclude others from the gift, so that one heir can have it all.

In Ephesians, however, the mystery revolves around God giving the inheritance away too freely. What is so mysterious is that God has written a whole new group of heirs into his will. This does not shortchange those who were heirs before, because there are “boundless riches” in Christ (3:8). There is plenty to go around. So the mystery in this case is the mystery of grace. Second, Paul does not work with a small cast of characters but speaks in cosmic terms about what God is doing. This is a story that has to do with the vast group known as the Gentiles. The scale of the story does not fit into the classic manor house. It takes up the whole world. To be sure, the Gentiles are an unlikely group for God to be including in the inheritance. Traditionally, Gentiles were those who worshiped other gods. They were not the devotees of the God of Israel.

The key to the inheritance is that through Christ, God has called the Gentiles to faith in a new way. It is through faith in Christ (3:12) that the Gentiles are brought into relationship with God and given an inheritance in his grace. The mystery that was revealed to Paul was that God was not content to let the Gentiles be separated from him. Instead, God has acted to bring them into a new relationship with him. And Christ was the way God did that. Note that the inheritance theme was sounded early in Ephesians (Eph 1:14, 18). The letter recognizes that sin separates all people from God. Therefore all people-Jews and Gentiles-have the same need of grace. No one has an inborn right to be an heir of God’s grace. People become heirs by the mercy of God. Moreover, all people are called to the same faith. To be a child of God is to relate to God in faith. And faith has a future. The mercy and gift of the Spirit that people have already received is an assurance of this. People are God’s children now, in faith. And faith has a future through the promise of resurrection.

Third, this means that the revelation of the mystery is not the end of the story. It creates a new beginning of a story. The usual pattern is that once the mystery is revealed, we can close the book. The case is solved. The suspense is over. But for Paul, the revelation of the mystery is just the beginning. If God has extended the promise of an inheritance to the Gentiles, this opens up a vast new chapter. Paul is in the business of making the news of what God has done public (3:7-10).

Public interest in real-life mysteries-like the mysteries in the detective novels-usually continues as long as the solution remains unknown. Once a case has been solved, it has a place in the newspaper for a few days, then, the story fades as other issues dominate the front page. For Paul, the pattern is the opposite. The disclosure of the mystery of grace remains the heart of his story. It is the news that has its proper place at the forefront of his work. He is not bashful about saying so. To know what God has done in Christ is to have the “boldness and confidence” that come from such faith (3:12).