What can we learn from the Wise Men?

The biblical account of the Magi has all the features of a great story: exotic guests, astral phenomena, gifts, a complicated journey, a fearsome and evil king, and a prophetic dream. It is also a startlingly clear fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah and Psalm 72 in this Sunday’s readings: Powerful people from distant lands will recognize the heaven-sent king of Israel and pay their homage with rich gifts.


‘When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.’ (Mt 2:3)

Liturgical day
Epiphany (C)
Is 60:1-6, Ps 72, Eph 3:2-6, Mt 2:1-12

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It is so close a fulfillment of those expectations, in fact, and so perfect an illustration of Matthew’s belief in the salvation of the Gentiles that scholars have long suspected Matthew composed the account himself. No mention of these events occurs elsewhere in the New Testament, and no corroborating evidence for the Magi’s visit has come down to the present (although one could make those points about many of the episodes of Jesus’ life). Writings about people of historical importance in the ancient world often included miraculous or parabolic narratives. Although such stories were not based on facts, they illustrated the supernatural character of the individual under study. The visit of the Magi seems to be such a narrative; the miraculous star and exotic messengers reveal Jesus’ messianic role.

Regardless of its provenance, Matthew writes a more complex story than most people today realize. He would have known that the word magi, although it could have many meanings, primarily described the educated courtiers of the Parthian empire, which lay to the east of Judea. He would have also known that Herod and the Parthians had an uneasy history. The Parthians invaded Judea—and all of the eastern Roman Empire—in the year 40 B.C. They were driven out, but not before Herod used the chaos of the Parthian wars to seize the throne of Judea. The Parthians never gave up hope of conquering Judea, and Herod never felt fully confident on his throne as long as these powerful foreigners saw him as a Roman puppet.

Now, Matthew tells us, Parthian ambassadors have appeared in Jerusalem asking about a new king. Matthew certainly knew that this would have thrown Herod into a fury. Herod would have thought the Magi were establishing a usurper, around whom to rally opposition to his rule. His reaction, to kill every young male child in Bethlehem, is understandable in this context. What Matthew presents, then, is a story of Jesus caught up in a geopolitical struggle that threatens his very life.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is often underestimated. Although he is just a baby, the titanic forces around him ultimately serve his mission. Whatever the motives of the Magi, they unwittingly fulfill centuries of prophecy. The strategic games of the Parthians and of Herod serve only to focus attention on Jesus. Herod’s evil actions throw Jesus’ divine kingship into high relief.

Divine love is a fleeting reality today, and fearsome forces threaten it at every turn. The story of the Magi reminds us that human machinations are flimsy affairs and that Christ has long practice in foiling them. No matter what motives the world and its rulers employ, all things ultimately—even unwittingly—come to pay homage to Christ.

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