Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12
The story of the three magi is one of the central narratives in the church’s celebration of Jesus’ advent.
It has come to symbolize for us important elements of who we proclaim Jesus to be, and what it means to follow Jesus. Set in the opening pages of Matthew’s gospel, the account foreshadows what will become clear in the narrative yet to unfold.
These magi are Gentiles from distant lands. Yet they recognize the importance of this child and who he will become. The story introduces recipients of Matthew’s gospel to the profession that this child, Jesus, is to be Savior and Lord for Israelite and Gentile alike. In this story we also find the magi an example of what it means to welcome the Christ child. The magi undertake an arduous journey from afar, compelled by their earnest desire to come before this new king.
Upon seeing Jesus, they worship him. Their actions parallel those of others throughout the gospels who respond to Jesus with almost immediate trust and devotion. We do well to remember this story, for it announces that Jesus is Savior to all humankind and celebrates those who embrace Jesus with eyes and hearts of faith.
At the same time, it is also important to note that in our remembrance of the magi we have tended to add several elements to their story that are actually not found in the Gospel of Matthew, the only gospel which tells us about them. In Christian tradition, the magi are commonly regarded as Kings, even though there is nothing in Matthew’s gospel to suggest this.
We also commonly remember the magi as being three in number, and several different sets of names throughout the centuries have been suggested for them. Again, there is nothing in Matthew’s account which tells us that there were three or the names they were called. Just as strangely, we (including the NRSV translators!) have commonly regarded the magi as wise men, even though there is nothing in Matthew’s gospel that tells us that they were wise or that they were all men.
From what we can piece together from surviving historical evidence, it appears that magi were astrologers and interpreters of dreams, especially in eastern cultures that had been influenced by Persian customs.1 They were not kings themselves, but some of them served in the courts of kings, functioning as advisors. It is likely that most such advisors were men, but some could have been women. There is also evidence suggesting that the magi may have been itinerant, traveling in large groups, including their families — like roaming gypsies.
By some Gentile folk, some magi would have been regarded as wise. But to others, especially Israelites, the magi were commonly seen as fools, as indicated by nearly every reference to them in surviving Israelite texts from the time. It is very likely that most recipients of Matthew’s gospel — most of whom were Israelite Christians — would not have held the magi in high regard.
Rather, most early Christians would have heard this story not as a story about the wisest and most discerning among the Gentiles coming with great reverence to honor the Israelite King. They would have heard it as an almost comical, puzzling tale, about a bunch of silly, Eastern astrologers who are led by a star to see Jesus. “What was God up to?” many of the original recipients of Matthew’s gospel would have asked. “Why them?
Note too that Matthew’s account of the magi doesn’t really encourage us to regard the magi as all that astute. While in the East, the magi see his star rising. But the star is such an obvious sign of the messiah’s birth that it eventually leads them right to the very home in which Jesus lives.
Even with the guidance of the bright and luminous star, the magi still get lost! So they stop off in Jerusalem and ask for directions. Eventually, King Herod gets wind of this and secretly summons the magi. He sends them off to Bethlehem, saying “Go ahead, find the Christ child, and then come back and let me know where he lives, so that I too can go and worship him” (verses 7-8).
But the magi are oblivious to Herod’s ulterior motives, and to the fact that he has just gained information from them that puts Jesus at great risk. The magi then head off to Bethlehem and the star leads them to the place where Jesus lives. Finally, the still clueless magi need to be warned in a dream not to return Herod.
If we read this story without the assumption that the magi are three, discerning, wise men, then we can see how this story may have been understood differently by those who first told it and first heard it. Then we too might ask concerning the silly magi, along with the earliest tellers and hearers of this tale, why these folk? What was God up to?
Asking these questions can help us to recognize another important element of Matthew’s Gospel that is in view here already in its opening chapters. As the narrative unfolds, we see Jesus picking fishermen, sinners, rebels and tax collectors — basically a bunch of nobodies and no-goods to be his disciples (4:18-22; 9:9).
For this he is upbraided by the Pharisees, to whom he responds: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (9:10-13). He commends a Canaanite woman for her great faith (15:21-28). He tells his disciples, “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave” (20:27). He defines heroic deeds as concern for the least among us (25:31-46), and emulates this in his own miracles of healing.
And at one point, Jesus proclaims, “I praise you Father, Lord of Heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to little children” (11:25).
In short, Matthew is concerned to tell us that those whom the world often finds silly, naïve, trashy, powerless, and childish are more likely to open their hearts and minds to Christ. The saving reign of God makes little headway among those who hoard their riches, who (like Herod!) seek to preserve their privileged positions, who celebrate their status at the expense of others, who so trust in their own manner of wisdom that they are blind to the way of blessing God is making known in plain sight before them. The Kingdom of Heaven comes to those who set the lies of this world aside, and rest their hearts in the truth and love of God made known in Emmanuel.
1 For a helpful review and assessment of this evidence, see Mark Allan Powell, Chasing the Eastern Star: Adventures in Reader Response Criticism (Louiseville: Westminster John Knox, 2001) 138-56.