Lectionary Commentaries for January 6, 2023
Epiphany of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12

Diane G. Chen

The Greek word epithaneia (epiphany) means manifestation. This festival commemorates the visit of the magi from the east and symbolizes the manifestation of the baby Jesus to the world.

Popular impressions of this event likely come from Christmas cards, staged nativity scenes during Christmas pageants at church, and the lyrics of the carol “We Three Kings.” In a typical Christmas play, all the elements from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke are squeezed into one performance—three kings, wearing crowns on their heads, each holding a gift, following a star to Bethlehem, arriving at a stable full of sheep and oxen, where shepherds have also come to see the baby Jesus lying in a manger. 

A closer reading of Matthew 2, however, presents a rather different picture. 

First, these men from the east were not kings but astrologers. The Greek word magos (magi in the plural) means astrologer or magician. The former definition fits the context here, though the rendering of magi as “wise men” in many English translations lacks precision. These astrologers would study the movement of stars and planets and interpret it as a sign that some important event in the world had occurred. 

Second, the text does not specify that there were three of them, nor their names and origin. Later traditions simply assumed there were three of them, given the mention of three gifts. They were then identified as Melchior of Persia/Babylonia, Gaspar of India, and Balthazar of Arabia/Syria. One would think they would be traveling together from the same country! In ancient times, it was customary to send a delegate to honor a new ruler in a neighboring regime. Could these stargazing astrologers be court officials too? In Persia, members of the priestly caste were called magi. Perhaps this could be their point of origin.

Third, the magi did not meet the baby soon after Mary had given birth. Unlike the shepherds who went to Bethlehem right after the angel had told them, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior” (Luke 2:11), the magi arrived later. From their initial sighting of the star to their arrival in Bethlehem after a stop in Jerusalem, considerable time would have elapsed. After all, Herod ordered all boys under the age of two to be killed, not just infants a few months or weeks old (2:16). Moreover, verse 11 says, “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother.” By then, the holy family would have long since left the temporary shelter where the shepherds first visited for more appropriate lodging. 

Fourth, the magi were not led by the star the entire way. The song “We Three Kings” has these words: “Field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star. O star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.” In Matthew’s text, they saw the rising of the star, ascertained its significance, and departed for Jerusalem, the logical place to find a Jewish king. Had the star guided them all the way like our modern-day GPS, it would have taken them straight to Bethlehem. Yet it was only after Herod sent them to Bethlehem that they saw the star again, which then led them to Jesus’ exact location. 

Despite the glaring discrepancies between the biblical text and the popular version in our minds, let us be reminded of the theological message that Matthew has for us. 

Comparing Herod to the magi, the irony is stinging. Jesus, the true King of the Jews, Davidic Messiah, and Son of God was rejected by the sitting ruler of God’s own people. Being only half-Jewish, Herod was both feared and hated. The Jewish historian Josephus painted a picture of Herod as a suspicious and cruel client king, with a history of killing anyone whom he saw as a threat, not least his three sons and his wife. So even though Herod was reminded of Micah’s prophecy that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), his response was not to pay homage but to destroy the newborn king. With murderous intent, he tried to trick the magi into divulging Jesus’ location. Not only did Herod fail to get rid of Jesus, his paranoia ended the lives of many innocent Jewish boys (2:16-18). His death shortly thereafter was poetic justice indeed (2:15, 19)!

By contrast, the magi were the “wrong” people doing the right thing. By means of their astrological expertise, these pagans happened upon a sign. How did they know the star signified the birth of a Jewish king? Did they know of Balaam’s prophecy, that “a star shall come out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17)? We do not know, for the text is silent on that score. Nevertheless, the magi acted on their discovery. They embarked on a long journey, carrying expensive gifts worthy of a king, eager to pay homage. Their efforts led them to an encounter far beyond their expectations. The King of the Jews before whom they knelt was not just another human king, but the Son of the Most High God. The text says that “they were overwhelmed with joy” (2:10), which is an understatement. The wording in the Greek is emphatically redundant: “They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Their homage was elevated into worship. The star and the dream that warned them not to return to Herod assured them that their pursuit had led them to the truth. 

Since the magi were gentiles, the festival of Epiphany commemorates the manifestation of the Messiah not only to Israel but to the world. This resonates with the universal outlook of Matthew, whose narrative ends with the Great Commission, when Jesus instructed his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (28:19). As the magi proclaimed the good news upon returning home, we, too, must do the same with great joy, deep reverence, and persistent enthusiasm.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6

Juliana Claassens

Isaiah 60:1-6 commences with two imperatives, “arise” and “shine,” directed to the City of Zion (see also the feminine singular form that corresponds with Jerusalem who typically is portrayed in female terms as Daughter/Mother Zion). These verbs indicate a renewed sense of agency after a long period of inactivity, which is intrinsically connected to the good news that “your light,” equated to the glory of God (kabod), finally will come. The presence of God will be like a bright shining light, breaking into the darkness, appearing in a context in which people, for a very long time, profoundly experienced God’s absence.

Isaiah 60, typically taken to be part of Trito-Isaiah, continues the theme of the great homecoming that was central to Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), and that envisioned the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem in a myriad of innovative ways. In Isaiah 60:1-6, the effect of the new dawn breaking after darkness has enveloped the earth is that the nations will be streaming to the light that has enveloped Jerusalem. In this regard, one is reminded of a parallel text in Isaiah 19:23-24 that imagines a highway running from Egypt to Assyria to Israel. On this highway, all three nations will be traveling freely and worshiping together with God, saying: “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.” This return is couched as a truly global event, with nations traveling to Jerusalem to revel in the light, drawn to the “brightness of your dawn” (verse 3).

The theme of foreigners traveling to the light extends into the New Testament as well. The image of camels from afar carrying gold and frankincense in verse 6 is taken up in Matthew 2:11 in the account of the wise kings coming to pay homage to the newborn king. This text thus traditionally is read in terms of the Feast of Epiphany or Three Kings Day, which draws on the Greek word epiphaneia, which literary means “manifestation,” of an Emmanuel God with us, who brings light and life in places of darkness and despair.

Like so many biblical texts, Isaiah 60:1-6 can be, on the one hand, a source of hope and healing as this text imagines an end to war and forced migration and being delivered from bondage, suffering, poverty, and hunger. For the first readers who were struggling with rebuilding their lives after the wreckage of war, this text imagines a new dawn breaking, a counter-world in which God, in the form of God’s glory (kabod), once more appeared in their midst, which serves as a source of salvation and blessings to come. In verse 5, we read that the effect of this manifestation of God’s glory is that the people will see the light and be radiant themselves, rejoicing after years of great sadness.

This line of interpretation has also been taken up in the Messianic tradition, with the birth of Christ serving as the epitome of this hope for deliverance. One sees this interpretation represented particularly well evident in Handel’s Messiah that draws on these texts, adding glorious music that we listen to each Advent and Christmas. A central feature of Handel’s Messiah is how it artistically interweaves texts from Isaiah 40 and 60, for example, when Isaiah 60:1 is combined with Isaiah 40:9–10: “O Thou that tellest good tidings to Zion … Arise shine for thy light is come.” Moreover, Isaiah 60:2 is combined with Isaiah 9:2: “For behold darkness shall cover the earth … The people that walked in darkness,” followed by the chorus from Isaiah 9:6, “For unto us a child is born” (Sawyer, Isaiah Through the Centuries). Every year when we hear these texts proclaimed through Handel’s masterful musical rendition, we are reminded that no matter how dark, how desolate our personal and collective lives may have become, once more, light has broken into the dark, and we are encouraged to “arise and shine.”

However, on the other hand, this text has a dark side that preachers should do well to keep in mind. The reference to the nations, with their wealth, streaming to the New Zion with God reigning over all is quite troubling in terms of an imperial, colonial history of Christianity’s problematic relationship with the Empire, which postcolonial critics have described as the conflation of “God, Gold, Glory.” It is interesting that the title of Adam Smith’s book The Wealth of the Nations, whose ideas of capitalism and free markets have definitively shaped our world, and not always in good ways, can be traced back to Isaiah 60:5. From a postcolonial (decolonial) perspective, the idea that the provinces and other countries willingly give up their riches and their natural resources for the benefit of the center, is problematic indeed. Such an idea moreover confirms how the Bible not only emerged in the shadow of one Empire after the other (Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Graeco-Roman), but also mirrored its literature in an act of mimicry on imperial images and worldview. 

And yet, if one reads Isaiah 60 as the product of a small, insignificant people, a broken group of survivors amidst the rubble, one understands that this text is an act of wishful thinking. The hopeful message directed to the people of Yehud is designed to help its first readers raise their eyes from the stark and devastating challenges that made up their current reality. However, one also should remember how different this text may sound when used by those in power. Such a view of the world may inflict great harm, intentional or unintentional, particularly upon those individuals who live in countries whose lands have been ravaged and sucked dry by empires, old and new. Perhaps Isaiah 19’s equally revolutionary message that imagined trade as going back and forth between epicenters, in addition to the notion of a God who values each of the nations on their own terms, might help one to think not just in binary categories of center versus margins, but rather corresponding better to the complex web of interconnections that our global village has become. 


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.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 6, 2019.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12

Luis Menéndez-Antuña

Imagine your pastor starting a sermon with this headline: “When I was in jail…” Imagine a teacher, professor, faith leader, or priest starting their teaching with an acknowledgment of their imprisoned status. In the Greco-Roman world, as much as ours, teaching was about content as much as prestige, about the message as much as the messenger. Notwithstanding recent cultural shifts that discredit reason and facts, it continues to be true, particularly in religious settings, that credentials matter: the teaching still relies on a series of protocols about credentials, honor, status, professionalism, and the ethical standing of the conveyor of knowledge. 

This is relevant because, in the passage at hand, Paul acknowledges that he is a prisoner. Scholars have long pointed out how, despite being rooted in an honor-based society, early Christian writings did not paper over the shame-inducing reality of following a leader that was tortured and suffered the most humiliating death. Similarly, Paul does not shy away from sharing with his audience that he has been imprisoned on numerous occasions. On the contrary, he makes the cross an element of pride and his prisoner status a motif of evangelization: “a prisoner of Christ” for the cause of bringing the gentiles into the covenant (Ephesians 3:1). 

It is worth noticing that the letter to the Ephesians might not have been written by Paul. Similarly, it is a writing that most likely is not addressed to a specific community (the letter lacks any specific details about the audience). Some scholars even point out that it could not be, properly speaking, a letter but rather a theological treatise. These historical and literary matters ought not to concern us at this moment except for the fact that they make Paul’s recognition of his own imprisoned status more salient. It is one thing to acknowledge one’s plight and another very different one to use someone else’s imprisonment as a sign of authority. Ephesians might be a generic letter meant to be circulated among different communities, with some parts constituting a homily designed to edify and animate its audience. Ephesians is a letter on the side of optimism. Unlike Paul’s earlier writings, Ephesians seems to transfer the future emphasis on salvation to the present (2:4-10), or former rifts about the Gentile/Jew divide to a sense of communion that seems fresh (2:11-18). The same topics appear in the passage at hand (3:6). 

Once again, this optimism should not lead contemporary readers to think early Christians embraced a vision where political and social differences were eliminated. Ephesians 5:21-6:9 (much like Colossians 3:18-4:1; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 5:1-2; 6:1-2; Titus 2:1-10; 1 Peter 2:13-3:3:7) mystifies via theological language the plight of the slave: slaves are to obey their masters “with a sincere heart as they would obey Christ.” (6:5). The tension between the divine project (1:20; 2:6; 2:10; 3:20) and the real world forces us to pay attention to how these communities navigated the equality in God and the equality in the real world. The inevitable hardships of being a prisoner even are expressed in ecstatic terms (3:1; 4:1). In 6:20, the author talks about being an “ambassador in chains so he may declare (the gospel) boldly.” The lowering of status is then a condition to carry the good news authoritatively, which always risks glorifying pain and torture. In the passage at hand, Paul’s imprisoned status is further rhetorically reinforced by his  declaration that he is “less than the least of all saints.” (3:8)

Such status denigration is striking in a passage that centers on knowledge and, more specifically, relies on the integrity of the knowledge conveyor: The mystery has been made known to the apostle via revelation (3:3). How does Paul then speak with command about truth, revelation, and authority? Paul centers his authority exclusively on being on the receiving end of a world-changing message. Such authority is, however, at odds with his persona. Many scholars have argued that Paul was protected by his Roman citizenship. Supposedly, this status would have granted him social honor, political purchase, and cultural competence. His imprisonment would be the consequence of proclaiming an anti-imperial religion, of preaching a belief system that challenged the political status quo. 

Although I am sympathetic to this view, it makes Paul digestible to our contemporary notions of honor and personhood. A political prisoner of sorts, in this version the apostle retains his honor by standing against the Roman Empire: a renewed account of David versus Goliath. An apostle who is incarcerated for his uncompromising beliefs is an apostle who is politically palatable. More recently, Schellenberg has argued that Paul’s numerous imprisonments put him more in the category of being a “civic nuisance,”1 someone who would be reported for trying to solicit funds that would be intended for the Temple, or for undoing the kind of allegiances that slaves, women, and other subordinate members of the household would be demanded to have for the paterfamilias. Rather than a political prisoner, Paul would be committing something similar to a misdemeanor and he would have been considered a repeat offender. 

This distinction between a political prisoner and common delinquent has important historical consequences for first century understanding of ecclesiology and discipleship. It is also theologically significant in the present because it sanitizes Paul: it is easier to identify with a political activist than with a working-class outcast. Paul’s repeated incarcerations inevitably damaged his social and cultural status but, apparently, did not rescind his authority. Of course, Paul’s role was contested and had to navigate numerous internecine communal struggles. Such context did not result in Paul being ashamed of being a prisoner or the author’s letter hiding Paul’s status. This is indeed a remarkable feature to keep in mind particularly in a time when we continue to link the gospel’s message to the honor and status of the messenger.


  1. Schellenberg, Ryan S., The Rest of Paul’s Imprisonments. The Journal of Theological Studies 69.2 (2018): 533-572.