Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12
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.