The Politics of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12): Epiphany as Disorientation

Church and Nation, Essays, Lectionary, Secularism, The Politics of Scripture

The lectionary readings for Epiphany bathe the reader in the language of light. Isaiah 60:1 commands the people of Zion to “Arise, shine; for your light has come.” Psalm 72:5 invokes those celestial light-givers, the sun and moon. And of course Matthew 2:2 gives us the splendid star-following magi and their sparkly gift of gold. In our most domesticated and tamed interpretations, we bask in the warm and cheerful glow emanating from these readings. Like our fireplaces keeping the gray winter at bay, these passages have become homey and cozy for many readers. Truth be told, I rather like that warm glow this time of year! Yet when these passages are let out of the house, they open up a larger landscape filled with things other than light and joy. Yes, they celebrate divine justice for the poor and the leader’s power to create it. They also illuminate the darkness and deception of power politics. They lift up the vulnerability of the divine sovereign made flesh, but also blatantly seek world dominion for the Davidic king. They rejoice in the manifestation of God, but also point to places where God‘s justice is eclipsed by political animals. In short, these passages for Epiphany disorient us about God and politics as much as they reveal God‘s relationship to the world…

[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, focusing on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and popular literature, film, and artistic expression. Inquiries and submissions may be sent to david.true@wilson.edu.]

The lectionary readings for Epiphany bathe the reader in the language of light.  Isaiah 60:1 commands the people of Zion to “Arise, shine; for your light has come.” Psalm 72:5 invokes those celestial light-givers, the sun and moon.  And of course Matthew 2:2 gives us the splendid star-following magi and their sparkly gift of gold.  In our most domesticated and tamed interpretations, we bask in the warm and cheerful glow emanating from these readings.   Like our fireplaces keeping the gray winter at bay, these passages have become homey and cozy for many readers.  Truth be told, I rather like that warm glow this time of year!    Yet when these passages are let out of the house, they open up a larger landscape filled with things other than light and joy.  Yes, they celebrate divine justice for the poor and the leader’s power to create it.  They also illuminate the darkness and deception of power politics. They lift up the vulnerability of the divine sovereign made flesh, but also blatantly seek world dominion for the Davidic king. They rejoice in the manifestation of God, but also point to places where God‘s justice is eclipsed by political animals.  In short, these passages for Epiphany disorient us about God and politics as much as they reveal God‘s relationship to the world.

In Psalm 72 one finds an optimistic view of God’s relationship to the political order and justice that is, in many ways, very attractive as a social vision.  The psalmist makes visible the cause of the poor and the liberation of the oppressed (Ps 72:4, 12-14)—lifts these up as the primary work of a righteous and just ruler.  The psalmist’s language provides the best possible vision of the political order and its ends.  The king’s role is to assure prosperity not only for the least of these among the people, but also for the earth itself. Indeed, the psalm is confident that this can happen, that the good leader can and should rule with divine justice.  Moreover, the psalm assumes that the monarchy housed in the palace in Jerusalem is, at its best, a reflection of God’s own rule of the universe.   And yet… we have been taught to be suspicious of monarchical language.  Though the psalmist tries to present its best possibilities, western readers know the dangers of collapsing the divine will with the king’s power.  Those suspicions about the dark side of unchecked power seem to be confirmed by verses 8-10, which wish for the total subjugation of all other earthly kings and foes—with God’s help, of course.  Not surprisingly, these verses of unfettered nationalistic zeal are not included in the lectionary reading for epiphany.

Emerging from the experience of imperial domination, Matthew 2:1-12 does not share the optimism of Psalm 72. Matthew’s Jewish writer knows well enough that emperors and their puppet kings are not God’s agents. The Herod of history and the king of the gospel of Matthew is paranoid, vicious, and deceptive.  And , despite the backing of Roman military power, he is also fearful.  The faux pas of the magi tips off the king that his power is limited, thanks to a tiny vulnerable babe. With this story of foreign astrologers coming and bowing down and paying homage to the baby, gathering around the light of the Christ, the evangelist picks up those ancient Hebrew desires for a righteous king and up-ends them. The king with whom God identifies is not clothed in purple robes and political hegemony, but appears in swaddling clothes and baby- pink flesh.

Matthew’s epiphany story illuminates the way in which God subverts the vertical axis of political, religious, and cultural power.   Matthew’s story confounds the conventional means of measuring power and worth in terms of ascending degrees of economic, cultural, and political influence over others.   Not only is the new king a poor babe from Nazareth, but those gift-bearing magi aren’t exactly power players either.  Magi were typically disregarded by the chosen people because of their association with foreign lands,  idolatrous ways, divination, and magic.  Also notice how they inadvertently endanger Jesus and the other innocents through their blunder with Herod. Nevertheless,  they are the ones through whom truth is announced.

Matthew’s epiphany also sheds light on the horizontal axis of power.  This horizontal axis measures prestige in terms of proximity to the center, or centers, of power.  The child is found not in Jerusalem, the center of Judean culture—where God was thought to dwell, or even in Rome, the center of the known world, but in one of the little villages of the little clans of Ephrathah. On the periphery of cultural and religious power.   And after the blundering magi leave and return to the far flung lands of the east bearing the story of the child with them, the son of God must flee to even more distant lands—into the diaspora, into exile in Egypt.  Matthew’s story disorients everyone—Herod fearful because of the challenge to his power, the wise men who are clearly lost, and the readers themselves.  But Matthew would re-orient us away from the political and cultural centers of power to wherever God resides.

Coming at the close of one calendar year and the opening of new one, epiphany is a good time to assess one’s place in the world.

The news of the past year shows American Christianity wrestling with a sense of disorientation and dissonance.  Polls reveal Christianity’s decreasing numbers here in the US and the increase in “nones,” those unaffiliated with any particular religious group who now account for 20% of the American population.   Yet, even as christian anxiety about being pushed to the edges of culture grows, other surveys and polls reveal Christianity’s strength in terms of numbers and global location. It retains its status as not only the largest religion in the world but also the most dispersed religion in the world—present in virtually every part of the globe.  Nevertheless, in some corners, the anxiety about the loss of status manifests itself in a besieged and fearful mentality.  Some powerful American Catholics and Protestants in the past year have made the claim that their religion is being persecuted by the US government and secularist groups—a claim that borders on the ridiculous.[1]  Other parts of the Christian community channel their anxiety in seemingly more constructive and generous ways.  They attempt to regain status, by which they usually mean numbers, through appeals to change, growth, and evangelism.  They call for the church to become more technologically savvy, more youth-friendly, and less “churchy”.  Even so, these are attempts to reclaim the cultural center and retain the power that has been slipping away from Christian institutions for decades now.

What might these epiphany passages say to this disorientation and anxiety?

Western Christianity has been so used to power for so long, has enjoyed  the benefits and privileges of the center, that we forget that we might not have that much power over our place in the culture to begin with.  Power, prestige, and place are commodities that ebb and flow, they cannot be contained and controlled if Christianity is to take seriously its conviction that God, not the culture, is the true sovereign. But the fear of  lost power warps and distorts our Christian witness, even as it warped Herod’s judgment. Similarly, the story of God’s grace is not ours to control and market. God reveals Godself where God wills and to whom God wills.  When the magi came bearing their gifts, they also returned to their own lands taking the story with them, to do with it as they would.  Christianity has never owned it, but has instead been gifted with it—to give witness to its truth about God’s grace, justice, and mercy.   The thought of being relegated to the periphery can be frightening, but the revelation of epiphany is that God is found there.  As Steve Willis writes, “The periphery is a surprisingly good and blessed place to rediscover the joy and the treasure that is worth everything.” [2]   Perhaps disorientation is not such a bad thing afterall.


EducationAmy Merrill Willis, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia.  Her teaching and research interests include Apocalyptic Literature, Biblical Theology, and the Bible and Popular Culture.   She is the author of Dissonance and the Drama of Divine Sovereignty in the Book of Daniel from Continuum Press.

 

 

[1] Eugene McCarraher, “Morbid Symptoms: The Catholic Right’s False Nostalgia,” Commonweal Online, November 23, 2012.

[2] Steve Willis, Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path (Herndon, VA: Alban, 2012), 96.

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