Epiphany: Not Your Average Christmas Pageant
By: Colin Cushman
Our text this week is Matthew’s story of the magi visiting the baby Jesus. Us Westerners are very familiar with this text. And those of us who are preachers often get bored by this story from preaching it every year. It has no sense of drama or surprise anymore. Our yearly Christmas pageants render it toothless. However, I have found that a political historical-critical reading of this story brings nuances to the surface that I certainly don’t hear in pageants. To my taste, it breathes new life into this story, its theology, and its implications.
The first thing that critical Biblical scholars emphasize is that the birth stories in Matthew and Luke are different. Contrary to our Christmas pageants, it does a disservice to the authors and their messages if we mash them together. For example, Luke’s birth narrative ties into his emphasis on the Great Reversal. For Luke, God works with the unexpected, especially the disenfranchised. In this gospel, the first is the last, and the last is the first. Matthew, however, has a different perspective. His birth story is all about politics. The spotlight swings onto the (inter)national scene and portrays Jesus as a rival king who threatens the powers that be. When the magi (more on them below) come and worship Jesus, they grant him political legitimacy.
Do you see the different stories that Matthew and Luke are telling? Matthew’s political story ties into his broader emphases, as well. For him, Jesus is the new Moses. Here, Jesus is not destroying the Law but perfecting it. In this gospel, the problem is not that the Pharisees follow the law in all of its minutia; it’s that they don’t follow it well enough!
Matthew’s portrait of the new Moses shows up as early as his birth story. Herod plays the role of Pharaoh. In real life, Herod was a very complex man. He was famous in the ancient world. He oversaw massive building projects, absolutely transforming the infrastructure of the region. The projects, of course, cemented his extraordinary fame. However, massive building projects accrue massive costs. Herod steeply increased taxes on the working population—the majority of whom were living close to subsistence level.
That being said, Herod was also famous in another way. He was obscenely obsessed with power and hyper-paranoid. Moreover, when trying to protect himself, he was absolutely brutal. He constantly stayed on guard against threats to his power. His track record shows the extent of this paranoia. In total, he killed 300 public officials, 2 of his sons (whom he strangled), and one of his wives, all on the suspicion that they were plotting conspiracies against his throne.
At the risk of speculating, perhaps these show that Herod was deeply insecure. After all, though he was serving as king, he didn’t have any royal heritage, he was an ethnic outsider, and his family converted to Judaism just one generation before he took the throne. He was installed by the Roman state, not by his subjects. Did these things explain why he was over-compensating? (Napoleonic Complex, anyone?) But as I said, at this point, I’m just speculating.
Let us also notice in this story the religious leaders. Unlike some commentators, we cannot denigrate all of these actors as religious elites. That being said, the structural function of the religious leaders was to maintain the hierarchical/colonial power structures of the Temple and the Roman imperial rule. These leaders ultimately serve Herod and make sure things don’t get too out of hand.
The outsiders in this story are the magi. We have incorrectly learned from carols that they were Three Kings. Wise Men is perhaps more accurate, but as we will see, even that title does not really get at their ambiguous status. A magus (singular of magi) was a particular royal position in the Persian priestly class. They directly served the king, which means that they had ties to the political centers of power. As a class, they claimed to gain supernatural knowledge through astrology.
This was a deeply unsettling, weird class of people. We see some of this come out in the story of Simon the Magus in Acts. He is a sorcerer tapping into some sort of arcane magic—a deeply ambiguous figure, fascinating but suspicious, shifty and crooked. Some kings also harbored suspicions, recognizing that the magi, in delivering a negative prophecy, could be a threat to the royal apparatus.
But for the Greco-Roman elites, giving magi even this much credit was too much. They simply saw them as “frauds” and “unreliable.” Moreover, as Easterners, these elites also attached stereotypes to them: drunkards, regular attenders of brothels, superstitious, “slaves.” In spite of these stereotypes, however, some Greco-Roman rulers were still intrigued. They imported magi to join their royal courts. Perhaps for us moderns to understand their deep ambiguity, the best parallel is to fortune-tellers. Like them, magi were superstitious and couldn’t be trusted—but yet they still held a mysterious appeal.
The magi, of course, were following a star. As hard as people try to find naturalistic explanations for this, basic Greco-Roman beliefs provide the best explanation. Many different ancient peoples believed that a star appeared in the night sky at one’s birth. The brighter it was, the more important the person will be. Since the magi saw such a bright star, they recognized that a new king had been born. The importance of this event made it worth it for them to make the long trek to find this new king.
Note well: this is precisely the thing that Herod was terrified of. This is why he slaughtered hundred of his subjects: to eliminate any royal contenders. The title “King of the Jews” was the same title that Rome bestowed upon Herod when he officially got their backing. But in Matthew’s story, we see Jesus also gaining the title “King of the Jews” from members of a royal court. In Jesus’ birth, Matthew shows us the arrival of this alternative king through a number of different symbols.
This king will be truly different from the kings we have seen before. Herod is perched in his gaudy palace, firmly located in the center of sociopolitical power. Jesus, by contrast, comes to a house in the backwater town of Nowheresville. (Note that in this story, Jesus is born in a house. The manger is the property of Luke’s narrative.) Herod is infamous for his brutality, and paranoia about his status and power. Jesus instead teaches downward mobility, voluntarily taking on servanthood, and nonviolent use of power.
So then, Matthew ends up narrating a story of several sketchy fortune-tellers dropping a bombshell on the king and those supporting him. Standing in for the role of Pharaoh is Herod and Jesus for Moses. Just as in the Exodus, it is a show-off between coercive, dictatorial power and God’s power, mediated by a human. However, beyond the Moses story, the magi insist that Jesus is a new alternative King.
Herod (like Pilate) was indeed right that Jesus did pose a threat to his rule. However, it didn’t look like they expected. Jesus did not accommodate to the demands of empire. Empire demands total allegiance, but Jesus’ way refuses to give allegiance to anybody but God.
That is the compelling story that I find here (and will never see depicted in a Christmas pageant). 
 For an excellent political reading of the gospel of Matthew (which was my main conversation partner for this article), see Warren Carter’s Matthew and the Margins (Maryknoll, NY; Orbis Press, 2001).
Colin Cushman is the pastor of Seabold United Methodist Church in Bainbridge Island, Washington. His primary focus is on the intersection of social justice, and Biblical studies and theology. He and his wife enjoy living in such a beautiful region of the country and look forward to seeing what God is at work doing here.