On Christmas day we reflected on the meaning of Luke’s account of the birth of the Messiah. Today, we reflect on Matthew’s account. Though we tend to mix the two accounts together telling them as one story, it’s best to keep them separate so that we can enjoy each author’s unique insight.
Matthew wrote his Gospel for Christians of Jewish origin, so he drew a great deal of his imagery from Jewish religious memory. A simple sentence introduces his narrative. “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” This isn’t merely an introduction; it actually tells most of the story.
The narrative begins AFTER Jesus is born. There’s no census. There’s no stable. There aren’t any shepherds, nor are there angels. Matthew begins by simply noting that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of King Herod.
David, Israel’s greatest king, was a descendent of Judah, one of Jacob’s twelve sons who was born in Bethlehem, a small town in the province of Judea. Jesus, a descendent of David, was born in the same town “in the days of king Herod.”
Any hope of an independent Israel ended when Rome installed Herod as king of Judea. Herod was half Jewish. His father was a Jewish convert. His mother was a non-Jew of Arab descent. As king, he straddled a difficult political fence. He had to appease the Jewish population while retaining unquestionable loyalty to the Roman state. To win the loyalty of the Jews he built their Temple in Jerusalem. To flatter Rome, he constructed temples to various Roman emperors. He kept kosher but served only expensive imported Gentile wines at his receptions.
He was quite paranoid. He executed his wife, mother-in-law, brother-in-law and his two of his sons for treason. He built several fortresses throughout the province that could serve as places of refuge should there ever be an uprising. Masada, near the Dead Sea, is one of them. Herod’s paranoia plays an important role later on in Matthew’s narrative. His response to the Magi’s question about the
new-born king of the Jews is quick and determined; locate the child and destroy him!
The introduction of “magi from the east,” would catch the attention of every Jew who read this narrative. This is a story of the birth of the Jewish Messiah. It was ironic that only gentiles recognized the Jewish king. Even the prophecy of the star was voiced by a pagan soothsayer, Balaam. “I see him, though not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel.” (Numbers 24:17) These magi from Persia saw the star and followed it.
In Matthew’s gospel, the star reflected two realities. It announced the birth of the king referred to in the prophecy of Balaam, and it also proclaimed that his birth was not only a worldly event – it was cosmic. Heaven and earth took notice of this “newborn king of the Jews.”
The magi came with symbolic gifts for the new-born king, myrrh, frankincense and gold. They were meant as theological commentaries on this cosmic event. This child was a king, and so was given the royal gift of gold. This child was divine, so frankincense was offered to him. This king would suffer. The gift of Myrrh, referred to as “gall” in Matthew’s account of the crucifixion, represented suffering, affliction and healing. This refers to Isaiah’s prophesy of a “suffering servant,” a messiah whose suffering and death would bring salvation and healing to the world.
There’s a sadness in Matthew’s account of the birth of the messiah. The magi weren’t Jews, yet, they saw the cosmic light and recognized the “King of the Jews.” Even the soldiers who beat Jesus during his arrest called him, in mockery, King of the Jews. And Pilate’s decree of execution read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Years later, the evangelist John felt this same sadness. He quite bluntly wrote in the prologue to his gospel, “He came to his own, but his own people did not accept him.” Luke put it this way in his gospel: “There was no room for them in the inn.”
The accounts of the birth of Jesus Christ are spiritual commentaries that are meant to engage our spiritual imaginations. They invite us to ask ourselves the same questions the evangelists asked of themselves when they wrote their accounts of his birth. Who is this King of the Jews? What do I believe about him? How does he impact my life and the life of the world I live in?
If we’re people of faith, like the magi, we never stop searching for him; we’re never content where with our present understanding of him. We always look beyond our small worlds for that star that continually leads us to the cosmic Christ – the Christ beyond religious structures and cultural limitations – the Christ who assured us, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of time.” (Matthew 28:20b)