Epiphany – Year A
Matthew, speaking to a Jewish community, should know how poorly astrologers are viewed in the Hebrew scriptures. There is a sense that they are worshipping the created stars rather than the creator of the stars. At best they bring a second-rate theology just a little better than necromancers.
Astronomy does give some cover for the Magi in Herod's court, but it also draws attention to Jesus and is precursor to the slaughter we heard of last week, that is the sequel to this story (what tangled webs are woven when story lines are broken).
Sticking to a theme of lowliness, instead of fulfillment, This may be Matthew's incarnating G*D into the realities of human life. Through pagans who remain pagans, Jesus is revealed to the larger world. Similarly, in Luke, it is through the lowly shepherds, not the angels, that word is passed about Emmanuel.
By the time we come to the end of Matthew's tale we find another pagan, a centurion affirming what the Magi searched for and only tasted the beginning of - Emmanuel. In the end we also find Jesus' disciples sent on a search for the Magi at the ends of the earth, that they might be baptized. [Note: if you are interested in an entertaining excursion of Jesus seeking the Magi, you may appreciate The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore.]
Try looking at this passage through the eyes of surprised Jews who hear it is those second-class Magi who first acknowledge and visit Jesus (don't get confused by conflating Luke into Matthew), who honor him with precious gifts. At the least, Jews won't get distracted by 2,000 plus years of numbering and naming the Magi or the exoticness of the gifts. They will know there is trouble coming when they hear the Magi are connected with G*D.
The felt but not articulated anxiety engendered by the incorporation of strange women into Jesus' genealogy becomes clearer with the arrival of the Magi. G*D is up to something very strange. Now that we are adequately unsettled by holy foreign women and holy pagan astrologers and murder most foul we are ready to hear about John, a baptizer, and then to proceed with an adult Jesus from whom we can accept the presence of G*D.
To look at this one story is to look at the whole story. Honor it well and don't get hung up on the consumer aspect of global trade items.
- - - - - - -
From Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller's Commentary by Richard W. Swanson:
"If the Magi had returned to Herod, perhaps he would have killed only Jesus and his family instead of needing to kill all of the toddlers in and around Bethlehem. Play this scene so that the audience sees and feels the cost of considering such a terrible calculation. Would it have been better if Jesus had been turned over? Can a faithful community save itself by betraying itself? Is there any way to defend against Herod without becoming as bad as Herod? Tell the story so that the community's risks and losses come clear. This is not just a story about one baby, but about all the babies."