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The Politics of Scripture

The Prophetic Politics of Epiphany

Matthew’s careful quotation of Isaiah 60 urges us to perceive that the birth of the poor, brown boy in a back corner of the Roman empire was the dawning of God’s glory upon humanity. Let us, then, celebrate—not with fear and self-preservation, but with confident investment in human flourishing.

60:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
3 Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Isaiah 60:1–6

In Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ infancy, he goes to great lengths to show that even though the child has been born to impoverished refugee parents in a land under military occupation, there is more to this baby than meets the eye. And so, having consulted the deified stars and the human powers that be, foreign dignitaries arrive and (foolish though it must have appeared) worship the unlikely infant, presenting him with outlandish gifts: gold and frankincense. Imagine the spectacle of UN representatives visiting one of our deplorable immigrant detention centers, only to prostrate themselves before a child detainee wrapped in a mylar blanket, while they whip out their checkbooks to outdo one another with gifts. In this vivid pericope, Matthew recalls his people’s Scriptures, the words of a beloved prophet, “Nations shall come to your light. . . . They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD” (Isaiah 60:3, 6).

Matthew is no hack theologian, though. He is not alluding to this ancient text in order to set up a simple prediction-fulfillment trajectory. No, Matthew knows his Bible better than that, and he hears deeper resonances in this old, old story that echo in the birth of the poor, brown boy in Bethlehem.

In context, the poem in Isaiah 60 is addressed to a bereaved woman whose spouse has abandoned her and whose children have been scattered. This feature of the famous text is often missed because all the feminine grammatical forms of “you” and “your”—so striking in the Hebrew—are lost in English translation. The woman in this poem is Zion, that is, Jerusalem, personified. Jerusalem had been ravished by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and its elite class exiled into the east. But a generation later, the tide began to turn. In 539, Cyrus of Persia overthrew the Babylonians and implemented a new foreign policy, one that allowed at least some exiled communities to return to their homelands if they wished. Isaiah 60 was probably composed shortly before or after that momentous shift.

The prophet declares that a new day is dawning for Lady Zion. Her sons and daughters are coming home and all her misfortunes are about to be overturned. So, the prophet counsels her, speaking on behalf of God: “Arise, shine; for your light has come.” Get up! Let your face brighten! For in spite of the deep darkness of the long night of Babylonian rule, the light of God’s glory is dawning upon you—and your children are coming home.

In this new day, Zion is pictured as a magnet not only for her exiled inhabitants, but also for nations, kings, and their wealth. Everyone, it seems, wants to make an investment in Lady Zion’s future. The “spiritual” aspect of this prophecy is, therefore, inextricably bound up with an economic and political outlook.

Economically, the “glory of the LORD” is manifested in the flourishing of the holy city: Like an impoverished woman who is suddenly showered with riches, the decrepit Jerusalem (says the prophet) was about to experience a rush of trade, building, and general prosperity. The materiality of this message is worth noting. I am no prosperity gospel preacher, and I read a level of hyperbolic license in this prophecy. But at the same time, it is encouraging to see that God does not take a disinterested position toward the material wellbeing of human communities. When the Judahite exiles returned, they found their great city in ruins and its remaining inhabitants struggling to survive. But, the prophet urges, there is more happening than meets the eye. A new day is dawning. Poverty, hardship, and blight are not invisible to God, who gives the prophet a vision of economic reversal for desperate Jerusalem.

Politically, the “glory of the LORD” is manifested when foreign nations and their leaders are drawn into collaboration with Judahites in worship. The new Jerusalem that the prophet envisions is a hub for international devotion to the God of Israel. Pastoral peoples will contribute flocks for sacrifice (v. 7); mineral rich nations will contribute silver and gold for the temple (v. 9); forested nations bring their best lumber to build up the sanctuary (v. 13).

With everyone focused on the beautification of the holy temple, there is no time for war. The gates of the city are left open at night (v. 11); the city will be known for peace and righteousness (v. 17). Violent nations who have harmed, or seek to harm, Zion will be humbled (v. 12, 14). Jerusalem is destined, declares the prophet, to be more than a refuge for a downtrodden people. This is not a time for mourning, for hunkering down in pursuit of mere survival. A new day is dawning and in the light of this day, Zion will be an international center for peace and devotion to God.

Returning to the New Testament, the author of Matthew seems to have written his Gospel with the Jewish diaspora in mind. At the end of the first century CE, Jews were again under the foot of a powerful empire, and by the time Matthew was writing, Jerusalem was again a heap of charred ruins. But Matthew wants his readers to know that there is more potential within the dispersed Jewish community than meets the eye. When Jesus came, it was the first ray of a new dawn, the rising of the glory of the LORD, the heralding of a new day for the Jewish people and the world, a day that would mean the lifting of their oppression and the drawing together of an international community of worship.

Perhaps this is why the evangelist drew upon the rich imagery of the ancient prophet in his report of the magi and their outlandish gifts for the humble infant in Bethlehem. He was urging Jewish Christians to exercise prophetic sight, to bring their mourning to its end, to arise and shine, to lift up their eyes and look around because in spite of surface appearances, God was doing something new and profound among them in the light of Christ that would draw the nations together for worship and bring about the flourishing of the human community.

We are in desperate need of such prophetic vision in our own short-sighted world. For we also live in a time when a thick darkness is over the peoples. Even among those who profess hope in God, our eyes are often downcast, inward-looking, self-interest seeking. The economic and political movements that are on the ascendancy around the world promote nationalism, isolation, and rhetorically prettied-up versions of xenophobia.

In the name of liberty, we support the hoarding of wealth among the few so that no one feels coerced to help the poor. In the name of security, we allow fear, prejudice, and simple racism to guide foreign policy. We are so preoccupied with our own discomfort and perceptions of scarcity that we would rather let the earth melt under our feet than have to make any costly sacrifices to address global climate change for the sake of future generations. This “us first” approach to global citizenship (which is really code for “me first”) is nothing less than the arafel, the “thick darkness” of Isaiah 60:2, masking the eyes of humanity. We need a prophetic vision, focused in the light of Christ, that urges us to get up! Shine! Recognize that God’s glory has dawned upon us!

If it is true, as Matthew wants us to perceive, that the birth of that poor, brown boy in a back corner of the Roman empire was the dawning of God’s glory upon humanity, then let us celebrate not with fear and self-preservation, but with confident investment in human flourishing. Let us celebrate not by constructing barriers against those who are not “us,” but by seeking out partnerships across differences and borders, to worship the creator by working together to renew the creation. Let those of us who desire to celebrate the epiphany of the Lord Jesus open our outlandish gifts before him, in the freedom and peace that comes from knowing that the darkness has no sustainable threat against us. For, “the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory” (Isaiah 60:19).

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