The Epiphany of our Lord

by Bear Wade

RE-PRIORITIZING AUTHORITY
Matthew 2:1-12
(The Epiphany of Our Lord)
analysis by Steve Kuhl


1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.


DIAGNOSIS: The Priority of Gentile Authority

Step 1–Initial Diagnosis: Astray
The text begins with the Magi, the scientists of the day, in search of the “king of the Jews,” that is, in search of a reliable authority upon which to base their lives. How they are like us post-moderns– looking and grasping for certainty. What makes them even more like us is that in their quest, they are led astray not by the star or even their “science” (that is, their observatory skills), but by their bias. They assumed that reliable authority was “gentile” authority, authority based on the big stick, “authority over” (20:25). They could not even imagine Jesus’ “Jewish” kind of authority as a reliable: the power to “turn the other cheek” (5:39), to be a slave for others (20:27). Can we? No wonder they ended up far astray from where God was leading them–in Jerusalem, and not in Bethlehem.

Step 2–Advanced Diagnosis: Defiant
Far worse than the Magi’s Jerusalem bias is Herod’s outright defiance of the “king of the Jews.” Notice that this defiance is only magnified when the Jewish Writings, which Herod supposedly honored, confirmed the Magi’s quest. To Herod, Jesus’ Jewish kind of authority was simply a rival to his “gentile” kind of authority–a rival to be eliminated. To be sure, Jewish authority does rival gentile authority, but not simply. The two authorities can co-exist, though never as equals, nor forever, as the Magi’s eventual “homage” to Jesus indicates. All authority is ultimately subject to Jesus. But by defying Jesus’ claim and authority, Jesus’ credibility as the “king of the Jews,” Herod ironically undermines his own authority and credibility. His rule is thus characterized inwardly by his fear and outwardly by his (murderous) attempts to eliminate all competitors.

Step 3–Final Diagnosis: Excluded
The irony–indeed, tragedy–in all this is that God finally gives Herod his way. Jesus’ rule is excluded from his life, not because of Herod’s cunning, but because God tells the Magi in a dream to go home another way, effectively cutting Herod out altogether (2:12). The full extent of this exclusion is evidenced a few verses later. There it is revealed that Herod has died and his son (no better than he) now rules in his place. This is not simply a matter-of-fact reading of historical developments. As the drama reveals, this is God’s judgment–God wielding gentile kind of authority better and more justly than the gentiles, like the law and the prophets do (5:17). What Herod never realized is that gentile rule also belongs to God. Do we? That being the case, the question is “how to change the terms of engagement coram deo (before God)?”

PROGNOSIS: The Priority of (Jesus’) Jewish Authority

Step 4–Initial Prognosis: Shepherded
Although Herod couldn’t see it, just down the road in Bethlehem–and up the hill to Golgotha (27:33) –lay God’s alternative terms of engagement. The terms that “the king of the Jews” came to exercise were not at all like that of gentile rule. Indeed, his terms are designed precisely for those (like Herod and us) who cannot survive the rigors of gentile rule. Here in Christ we have “God with us” establishing a new kind of rule based not on the big stick, but on mercy and forgiveness. This rule is designed to bring into God’s fold those stubborn, defiant, excluded strays that no one could love but a shepherd. In order to bring them in, this shepherd had to face the same enemy that the sheep faced: the cunning gentile rule, the excluding judgment of God. This he did on the cross (27:46). But unlike us, God was pleased with his Son (3:17), as even an expert in gentile rule could see (27:57). Thus, on the cross Jesus put gentile rule in its place, and won for all those whom he shepherds the victory of resurrection, God’s favor, a share in the merciful rule of heaven.

Step 5–Advanced Prognosis: Delighted
The rule of God is not without its immediate, personal effects. Indeed, the whole message of Matthew’s gospel is that the reign of heaven is effectively among us in a way that makes a difference in our lives now. That difference which the Kingdom makes in us is what Jesus calls “faith” (15:28, 8:10, 9:22). Faith is the in-breaking of the rule of Christ. It is having what he gives. It is the end of defiance. In the story of the Magi, this faith is expressed as sure delight. “They were overwhelmed with joy” (v. 10). This joy, of course, is not simply an optimistic outlook or a spirit of positive thinking. Quite unlike these solipsistic philosophies that delight in delight itself, the joy that the Magi expressed is only as warranted as its object. For the Magi their faith is a true and saving faith only if the Christ they trust is truly “the king of the Jews.”

Step 6–Final Prognosis: Returning
Now that the Magi have found what they were looking for, a reliable (Jewish) authority upon which to base their lives, they gladly subject their whole lives to him, as their gifts and homage indicate. But note: to be one of the fold and not a stray does not mean abandoning the secular world from which they came. Rather, it means returning to it. For the Magi (and us) that means returning to neighbors, spouses, children, even our old Magi craft, whatever that may be. It even means exercising gentile authority, only now with a difference: “not in order to be served, but to serve.” New-styled Magi may even find themselves risking estrangement from other gentile authorities as they try to use their old craft for such new purposes. But that doesn’t intimidate them. Quite the contrary; it underscores just how blessed they really are (5:11-12).

Author

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