What fools these magi be

Reading: Matthew 2:1-12

Every year, I see manger scenes with shepherds, wise-men, angels, animals, and the Holy Family. We sing songs about the wise men who sought after Jesus, and we honor their devotion to seeking Jesus with so little to go on. The story of the wise men is something that is always part of Christmas, but we rarely think about their role in the story. While their gifts were princely, their actions made Mary, Joseph, and especially Jesus fugitives in Egypt. The people we call “wise men” must have been fools if they could not foresee the results of their actions.

The so called wise men were magi from the East. The most obvious way of understanding this is that they were Persian priests. If this understanding of these priests is correct, and if Joseph’s paternal family line was known, this was something that had dangerous political consequences. The Parthian empire was still a power, and still would be for another two and a half centuries. These were foreigners interfering with politics internal to the Roman Empire, not unlike the ways that Romans were using their diplomatic skills to disrupt the Parthian throne(s) and destabilize the Parthian Empire.

Currently, the king of Judea was Herod — the king who was put on the Throne by the Romans. The Magi visited Herod to talk to him about his replacement, a replacement who came from the line that the Persians returned to official governance when Judea was a tributary state the Parthian Empire. Joseph was, according to Matthew 1 a direct male line descendant from Zerubbabel, who ruled Judea under the Parthian empire.

Consider the significance of a delegation of priests coming to endorse the rule of a new king. Politically, this was denying the legitimacy of Rome’s claim on this territory. The Magi were claiming an infant king who would remove Roman rule, and perhaps, remember that his first supporters were those who visited from the neighboring empire. This acknowledgment that the Religious elite of the Parthian empire felt it was right to recognize a new king, as a successor of a failed dynasty is one that requires either large armies or great secrecy.

Before Jesus can talk, Jesus is named a political king. Matthew, from the very start of the book has people getting Jesus all wrong. Not only do Jesus’ disciples and the crowds misunderstand Jesus’ mission, thinking that Jesus will free his people from the rule of Rome, but the Parthians seem to look to the infant Jesus as a disruption to Roman power. The wisdom of the day is that if salvation is needed, we need saved from Rome. From the very opening of Matthew‘s gospel, we see that this is not the salvation that Jesus offered.

The magi were fools, but sometimes we all are.


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