Included in many Christmas manger scenes are three kings. Usually these figures are dressed in royal robes and are of various ethnicities. Each carries a gift: gold, frankincense or myrrh.
The Bible really doesn’t tell us much about the magi, sometimes called wise men or kings. Perhaps the details have been created because the Bible actually gives us so little information about these learned star gazers. Only in Matthew’s version of the Christmas story are the visitors even mentioned. That version doesn’t say how many, what their position in society was, where specifically they were from or even if they were male or female. All of the details–that there were three, where they came from, the camels they rode, that they were kings–all are traditions that have evolved over the years.
None of these details are the important part of the story. Perhaps the most important part of the story is the part between the lines. How, for example, did these non-Jewish travelers come to follow this star in the first place? Obviously they must have known some Hebrew teachings even though they were most likely from the Persian Empire to the east. Didn’t they find a moving star pretty strange? And the gifts–what strange presents for a baby! Myrrh was a perfume used in burials.
What did these well-educated people think when they found the new king, wrapped in plain hand-woven cloth, living in poverty. Surely they must have wondered about their calculations and the directions given them. Do you suppose they wondered if this poor family would use their gifts well? Did they ask for documentation proving the royal lineage?
The Wise men did not seem to question the incongruity of the situation in which they found the new King of the Jews, They followed through and left the gifts, valuable and fit for a king.
Martin Luther, in one of his many Christmas sermons, pointed out that “The world would not have done so, but according to her wont would have looked for a velvet cushion and a host of servants and maids. The world makes presents to those who already have enough, and, to provide them, snatches the bread from the mouths of the hungry who have nothing but what they earn with their bloody sweat.”
Luther continued, “If we Christians would join the Wise Men, we must close our eyes to all that glitters before the world and look rather on the despised and foolish things, help the poor, comfort the despised, and aid the neighbor in his need.”
How often we measure what we do by the world’s wisdom. What is profitable? Will our actions provide us and those we love with security? What will I gain? Who will be in control? Will my charity be squandered by others? Will the person I help take advantage of my generosity? Will they be sufficiently grateful for my giving?
No one knows if the Wise Men asked those questions as they placed their priceless gifts in the hands of a poor carpenter and his wife. The point is that they did it.
Whether they knew or not, it was likely their gifts which provided the means for Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt and to save the baby Jesus’s life. Their unquestioning act of generosity changed the world.
Have a happy New Year filled with many gifts both given and received.
Copyright © 2016 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains