Matthew 2:1-12 The Gifts of the Wise Men
Steve and I had to change our plans for Christmas because of my shoulder injury. We had to cancel our trip to my brother in S Wales because of my shoulder – I wasn’t able to sit in the car that long and it would have been a lot of driving for Steve on his own.
However, that left us with the problem of what we were going to do for presents for them all.
I spoke to my brother on the phone who gave me a list of suggestions of what to get for him, my sister-in-law, nephew and 2 nieces. It took me 40 minutes on Amazon to find and buy everything and I was able to have everything delivered direct to them. It was easy, straightforward, and required very little thought or effort. It was just what we needed at the time.
The story of wise men visiting Jesus and their giving of gifts is a similar story – but these are gifts with hidden costs both to the givers and the recipients.
The word that Matthew uses for ‘Wise men’ is the Greek word from which we get ‘Magi’ – those who possess secret wisdom – astronomers/astrologers – two were inseparable in that culture. They were men who gained spiritual insight into world affairs from their observations of planets and stars.
They were prompted by what a ‘star’ they saw in the sky to go on journey to seek out new born king. The ‘star’ was probably a natural phenomenon. Possibly:
- conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn (that happened 3 times in year 7-6 BC)
- a comet (Halley’s comet passed over in 12-11 BC)
- a supernova – an exploding star
Whatever the star was these men associated it with the Jewish expectation of the coming king and so they set off to find this king.
They did the obvious. They went to the capital city of Israel – to Jerusalem and to the King’s palace, to see King Herod to enquire where the child was who was born king of the Jews.
In doing that they stirred up a hornets nest. Herod was paranoid, with a reputation for cruelty and violence. He was threatened by the thought of a rival king. That made the whole of Jerusalem afraid. They knew he’d already killed his favourite wife and two sons from feeling threatened. What would he do in response to this new threat?
He couldn’t just send wise men on their way. He needed to know where this child king was so he could remove the threat.
So he pretended to be helpful, using the excuse that he too wanted to pay homage to this king. He gathered together the religious leaders who would know where to seek this long expected Christ. With this we see emerging a strand that runs through so much of Matthew: the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy about the life and death of the Messiah. In this instance the prophecies showed that Bethlehem was the birth place of the child born king of the Jews.
The star continued to lead the wise men to Bethlehem, to the place where Jesus was.
Matthew describes their reaction on seeing Jesus emphatically. He says, literally, ‘they rejoiced with a great joy exceedingly’. The depth of their joy is typical in the context of Messianic fulfilment.
This deep joy prompts the wise men to bow down and pay homage to Jesus. They knelt on the ground, leaning forward with their foreheads touching the ground. The homage that they gave to Jesus was that due to a king.
The wise men themselves may not have recognised Jesus’ divinity but Matthew intends his readers to understand that the wise men worshipped better than they knew. The worship and homage of the wise men was to be a pointer to the worship to be offered by those who grasp not only Jesus’ kingship, but also his divinity.
Then they opened their treasure chests and gave Jesus gifts. Gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gift were very expensive. They had to be wealthy men to give these gifts because they were so valuable. This is probably where idea of them being kings comes from – the value of the gifts.
Matthew doesn’t draw out the significance of the gifts. The wise men were wealthy men who would have travelled with treasure chests to finance their trip. They didn’t have credit cards or foreign exchange bureaus etc from which to draw cash. So they carried assets of universal value in chests so they could liquidise these assets for cash as required to provide finance. We can imagine them rootling around in their chests, looking at what they had and then thinking ‘Ah – that would be good’ and presenting it to Mary and Joseph.
In those ways the gifts of the wise men were perhaps similar to my Amazon shopping for my brother’s family: the gifts were easily to hand, they didn’t take that much prior thought, and the monetary value of them was negligible to these men.
But there were the hidden costs for these wise men in giving these gifts to Jesus: costs they would not have anticipated when they first saw the star, realised its significance and started to follow it:
- the cost (not financial) of the journey itself: the discomfort – heat in the day, cold at night; the difficulties of finding food and water; the physical dangers of accidents in travelling through rough terrain; the dangers of attack by wild animals; the even greater danger of attack by robbers.
- there was the cost of their visit to King Herod which they didn’t realise – the potential danger they’d put themselves in by bringing the birth of a rival king to the attention of a paranoid, cruel despot. Fortunately this was averted by God’s warning to them through a dream, not to go back to Herod, but to take a different way home.
- but then that produced the cost of them having to stay out of Herod’s attention by going a much longer route home.
The Methodist Covenant Prayer
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.