Lectionary Commentaries for January 6, 2022
Epiphany of Our Lord
Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12
Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6
We read Isaiah 60 at Epiphany in part because of the connection between the three gifts of the Magi— gold, frankincense and myrrh—and the promises of favors of gold and frankincense for Israel brought from southern peoples (Isaiah 60:6). In addition to the mention of similar gifts, however, the Isaiah passage, and the hope therein, can meaningfully contextualize Epiphany, if only we can let the Isaiah text speak on its own terms.
Arguments still rage about what exact context(s) gave rise to the prophecies of the Book of Isaiah. Happily, it is beyond the scope of this short reflection to solve that issue. I will assume that chapter 60, at least, is reflecting on the Babylonian exile and captivity and offering an eschatological vision for Zion, rather than a specific and limited prophecy of deliverance from a particular time of trouble.
Chapter 60, like most of the rest of Isaiah, is intentionally intertextual. As before, a people walking in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2). In Isaiah 60, the people are called to respond to the shining of their light (that the light belongs to the people will be important). The people are called to rise up and shine, as a response to God’s glory and their light arriving in their midst. The world has come into darkness. But God is doing something about it. God called to a downtrodden nation, in the midst of successive foreign rule by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, to arise and let their light shine.
A relatively weak and subjugated people possess some sort of attractive quality that proves irresistible to nations and kings who cannot help themselves but investigate the strange light emanating from Zion. In the coming weeks, we will read how this light is the gravitational pull of a righteous society. This is, in no sense, a coercive attraction, or even a missional invitation. Rather, the nations take it upon themselves to come of their own volition and initiative because of the magnetic pull of the light shining from God’s people. 13th century French rabbi, David Kimhi, held that Isaiah 60:3 pointed to the promised fulfillment of Isaiah 2:3 (NASB):
And many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the mountain of the Lord,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
So that He may teach us about His ways,
And that we may walk in His paths.”
Previously Israel and Judah had warred with the nations, and even conquered some of them for a time. But in the future, God’s righteousness will shine though literally enlightened humans who will pull others to themselves solely because of their contrast with the befuddled rest of the world.
In the midst of this enlightening and attraction of the world, God calls the people to take notice of two simultaneous shifts that are happening as the nations stream toward Jerusalem. In verses 4 and 5, humiliated and abused people receive unexpected gifts. There are, of course, differing interpretations about what is going on here, but I choose to see this as divinely inspired reparations. Where once children were taken into exile, sons are returned from afar, and daughters are carried on the hips of their nursemaids. Again, we must look to the intertextual references within Isaiah to learn the identity of those who returned the abducted infants. Not only are children returned to those from whom they were stolen, but in God’s future, kings return captive boys to their parents, and queens nurse the kidnapped girls (Isaiah 49:22-23).
Accompanying the returned children, to a formerly despoiled people, comes the wealth of nations and the abundance of the sea (60:5). Upon seeing the restoration of children and of wealth, the people become radiant and shine forth even more light (60:5). There is something about an increase in justice, wrongs being made right, and those who have plundered exchanging positions with those they have plundered that causes the righteous to rejoice, as Hannah and Mary well know (1 Samuel 2:1-10 and Luke 1:46-55).
In addition to seeing their reparations for past wrongs arrive, God calls the people to witness the inclusion of formerly distant peoples. Midian, Ephah, Sheba, Kedar, and Nebaioth are listed in verses 6 and 7 as bringing gifts that allow them to participate in the praise and worship of the God of Israel. Midian, Ephah and Sheba bring innumerable camels laden with gold and frankincense. Kedar and Nebaioth bring sheep to be used at the holy altar.
These Arab and Afro-Arab tribes were not chosen at random. They were the other descendants of Abraham, with Hagar and Keturah (Genesis 25:1-4, 12-13), whom Abraham sent away from his son Isaac (Genesis 25:5-6) so that they might not take what was his. Abraham gave these other descendants gifts before banishing them. Then Abraham gave Isaac everything he had. In the poetic promise of Isaiah, God undoes Abraham’s banishment and restriction of inheritance to Isaac. The tribes return, bearing gifts, and they are in turn welcomed to share in the greatest inheritance of Abraham: community with the God of Israel at its center.
We mark this day when nations recognize the Messiah, sent to bring near those who are far off, to rescue from sin, death and injustice, and to shine a light to the nations. Isaiah 60 must be about more for us than a prophecy of someone bringing gold and frankincense. Instead, it speaks of God’s longed for future, when a light shines out from God’s people that is so attractive that it cannot be ignored. Past wrongs will be made right through humble repentance and costly reparations. And the prophet foretells of a time when those who have been cast out and sent away will be welcomed back to the very center of what God is doing.
Commentary on Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Beth L. Tanner
The Greek meaning of “epiphany” means to reveal or uncover.1
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.
- Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 6, 2019.
Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12
J.R. Daniel Kirk
Epiphany falls on the twelfth day after Christmas, January 6 each year on most western churches’ calendars. It’s a day set apart to mark the arrival of the magi from the east: when Jesus was acknowledged as “king of the Jews” by those who were not, themselves, Jewish. The English word “epiphany” comes from a Greek word that means, “to appear” or “to become manifest.”
Throughout history, many Christians have celebrated epiphany as the time when Jesus’ divinity was made known. But in the biblical story in Matthew 2, and in the Ephesians reading for this day, a different sort of revelation is in view. This is the point when the Gentiles see the salvation of Israel’s God. This is the celebration of a gospel story that will burst beyond every ethnic, racial, and linguistic boundary.
The great mystery, revealed on Epiphany, is that Jesus comes to make Israel’s God the God of all. This happens not through the nations being conquered or forced into servitude, but by welcoming them into the family of God. Thereby they come to honor and worship Jesus, the Jewish messiah.
If epiphany is about an “appearance,” then what, exactly, becomes manifest? In Ephesians 3 Paul refers to it as “the mystery.” It lies at the heart his own special commissioning and calling from God. Here it is: “the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
There are two ways that we can go wrong when dealing with a passage like this. First, because it uses such exalted language to talk about God—God’s purpose, God’s accomplishment, the cosmic manifestation of what was previously hidden—because of all this, it is easy for us to miss that the primary thrust is sociological.
God is creating a new society. God is doing so in Christ. And it includes Gentiles.
When we miss this, we end up talking about other mysteries: perhaps the divinity of Jesus, perhaps divine providence that awaited this moment from eternity past, perhaps the heavenly orbit to which the good news ascends. This costs us. We minimize the sociological nature of God’s great mystery at the expense of our unity here on earth, at the expense of fully participating in the gifts of the body of Christ.
The other way we can go wrong is by exalting our own inclusion in Christ at the expense of others. Too often, Christians have ignored the manifold warnings of Paul and looked down on the Jews among whose number both Jesus and Paul counted themselves. Church history is littered with the bodies and souls of people whose lives were destroyed by those who claimed truer knowledge of God than those whom they opposed. But the mystery revealed at epiphany is the surprising breadth of God’s embrace. The people who were strangers, aliens—sinners by definition (Galatians 2:15)!—are numbered among the daughters and sons of God.
Maybe we’ve missed it so often because it’s not obvious. Look through the passage and you’ll see that the great mystery, the inclusion of the Gentiles, is not something that you could just read off the page of the Old Testament scriptures. Paul got it “by a revelation” (Ephesians 3:3). The prophets and apostles of the early church were taught this “by the Spirit” (verse 5). The idea that “outsiders” are actually an integral part of the community is so inconceivable to us, it can only be seen if the Spirit opens our eyes.
Paul is speaking of including Gentiles alongside Jews. For many of us it would take just such a Spiritual shake-up to willingly, and equally, include within our churches people from another political party. Or perhaps another racial or ethnic group. God causes us to share a body with a broader swath of humanity than we would choose for ourselves.
Riches for the Cosmos
Revelation is not only made to the people of the church. Revelation is made through the church as well. “Through the church” God’s wisdom is made known (Ephesians 3:10). The diverse composition of the community, defying earthly commitments and long-standing religious identities, stands as a signpost, declaring the work of God. A church of Jews and Gentiles, Romans and Barbarians, men and women, Republicans and Democrats, all united as one people—this shows the cosmic powers a greater power still.
Modern societies don’t tend to think of angelic or demonic figures standing behind our leaders. But we are often aware that there are forces larger than individuals and their actions. There are systems of power that often oppress those without it. There are cultures that hold sway over us even when we’re not aware. What would it say to such powers as these if God’s church was a place where powerless and powerful alike were joined in a community of equals?
What if we were able to step outside the competition for money, status, influence, or power, and create a place where “the boundless riches of Christ” (verse 8) convinced us that there is enough? That, in the goodness of God, we will not be left out if we don’t hoard or exclude?
This is Paul’s vision for the church. This is what is supposed to be the open secret. The gospel is not just about giving us a new relationship with God. It is not just about God revealing a deeper understanding of who God is, or who Jesus is as God incarnate. The gospel is also about giving us a new community. A surprising community. One that defies the “birds of a feather flock together” sociology that otherwise binds us to people who share our social location.
If we have eyes to see it, maybe this community itself is the riches God has on offer. If we have the willingness to accept it, this community will be the greatest witness for the gospel that we could ever imagine—an epiphany, indeed.
Herod the Great was well-known in the ancient world for both his paranoia and his brutality. He had one of his wives and several of his sons murdered because he thought they were plotting against him. Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor under whom Herod ruled, is rumored to have said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son. As the would-be Jewish king, Herod could not eat pork, so his pigs were safer than his progeny!
Matthew’s depiction of Herod fits very well with this picture of a paranoid and brutal despot. According to Matthew, when Herod hears of a baby born to be king of the Jews, he is troubled and begins plotting to do away with him. And it is not surprising that when Herod is troubled, all Jerusalem is troubled with him. There was no telling what a jealous, ruthless tyrant might do. As it turns out, he will have no compunction about slaughtering all the infant boys in Bethlehem.
For Herod, and for all who plot evil in dark corners, the bright star of Jesus’ birth is not good news. It illuminates a world much larger than Herod imagined, a world in which he is not in control.
One homiletical possibility for this text would be to focus on the stark contrast between King Herod and King Jesus. The infant king born in humble circumstances comes not to take life but to give life, not to wield his power and authority against people, but to live among his people as a servant (Matthew 20:25-28). The prophecy from Micah quoted by the scribes says that out of the tiny village of Bethlehem shall come a ruler “who is to shepherd my people Israel.” From the hometown of David, the first shepherd-king, comes a shepherd-king who will seek and save the lost (Matthew 18:10-14), who will lay down his life for his sheep.
Another preaching possibility would be to focus on the magi. It is ironic that Herod is first alerted to Jesus’ birth, not by the Jewish chief priests and scribes, but by foreign “magi” (magoi in Greek). The tradition that these magi were kings has grown out of interpretation of Scripture, such as the Old Testament lectionary texts for this day. Isaiah 60 speaks of Gentile nations being drawn to the light of Israel, and kings to the brightness of its dawn, with gifts of gold and frankincense. Psalm 72 also speaks of Gentile kings bringing gifts and bowing down before the king of Israel. The tradition that there were three kings likely comes from the detail in Matthew’s story that the magi brought three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Despite these traditions, the fact remains that Matthew never says they were kings and never tells us how many there were. The magi were most likely astrologers, perhaps even Zoroastrian priests from Persia. They are certainly Gentiles; they come from outside of Israel, and they do not know the Scriptures. But they do know how to read the stars. God reaches out to them and leads them through what they already know. In the ancient world, stars and other signs in the heavens were thought to signal important events. In this case, a bright star rising leads them to discern that a royal birth has occurred in Judea. So they come bringing gifts fit for royalty – gold and frankincense and myrrh.
The humble piety of these foreigners in searching out the infant Judean king to pay him homage stands in stark contrast to the machinations of King Herod. Herod calls together the chief priests and scribes and asks them where the Messiah is to be born. Then he calls for the magi and asks them the exact time that the star appeared. He tells them that when they have found the child, they should come back and tell him, so that he also “may go and pay him homage” (2:8). We know, of course, that he has a much more sinister intent.
The gifts that the magi bring also offer material for homiletical reflection. The gift of gold for a king is not hard to understand, but frankincense and myrrh are not so well known in certain contexts and may require some explanation.
Both frankincense and myrrh come from the fragrant resins of trees, and both have long been used in perfumes and in the making of incense for worship. Myrrh has some very distinctive properties. The name itself means “bitter” in Arabic. Its yellowish-white resin seeps from the trunk of a small desert tree when wounded and hardens into teardrop shapes, as though the tree itself were weeping. Once exposed to the air, its color deepens into gold, then amber, and then scarlet—like drops of blood against the bark of the trees. The resin is bitter to taste, but when ground into a powder or burned as incense, it releases an extraordinary fragrance.
Myrrh has long been used for its medicinal qualities as an antiseptic or analgesic agent. According to Mark, Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh at his crucifixion (Mark 15:23). In the ancient world, myrrh was also a common agent used for embalming the dead, and according to John’s Gospel, it was used at Jesus’ burial (John 19:39). As such, myrrh seems a strange gift to bring to an infant, a gift more suited for the end of life than its beginning.
Yet it seems that the magi were indeed wise in their gift-giving. Their gift foreshadows what is to come. Myrrh is a bittersweet gift, but it is a fitting gift for King Jesus born into the world of King Herod, for an infant king born into a world where evil tyrants plot the deaths of innocents. It is a fitting gift for this humble king who will be put to death as a threat against the empire. It is a fitting gift for the shepherd-king who comes to lay down his life for the sheep. The fourth verse of the Christmas carol “We Three Kings” brings out this significance of myrrh very well:
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom,
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in a stone cold tomb.
This is not a very cheery verse for a Christmas or Epiphany carol, but it is deep and profound. Even if we would rather not be reminded, the gift of myrrh reminds us that Jesus’ birth, like every birth, begins a journey toward death. This infant king is born to die, and it is for our sake. At the same time, the healing properties of myrrh remind us that in Jesus’ death and victory over the grave, there is healing for all our ills.