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Unfinished Painting "Adoration of the Magi" 

A Life-Changing Journey — Matthew 2:1-12

Kathleen Rushton —

KATHLEEN RUSHTON interprets Matthew 2:1-12 reflecting on the Magi’s visit to the newly-born Jesus in Bethlehem.

The feast of the Epiphany, also known as the Twelfth Day or Twelfth Night, was established by the end of the second century and celebrated long before the feast of Christmas. As well as the feast, the term “epiphany” is used of a moment when one feels suddenly that one understands, or becomes conscious of something important, triggered by new information, which allows a leap of understanding.

I was waiting to pay a traffic fine at a local Westpac Bank. Inside was a large, shiny, red, upmarket version of the humble farm-bike with a placard exhorting people to take out an easy-to-action loan to purchase this $9,800 +GST vehicle for a Christmas gift. Another poster gave a financial countdown to Christmas: if paid fortnightly — so many pay days to go. Two recent experiences highlighted just how distorted the meaning of Christmas has become. First was participating in the “Reverse Greed: Heal the Earth” series, which included a seminar on banks. The second was my research on banks that invest in fossil fuels. The bank’s “gift” loans land people in debt and imbed consumerism in our society. Further such loans bolster Westpac’s profits, which despite their claim to be leading in sustainability, are heavily invested in fossil fuels and bankrolling new coal mining ventures (Fossil Free Banks Report 350.org.nz/).

In light of the above we can look carefully at Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting, “The Adoration of the Magi”, commissioned by the monks of San Donato a Scopeto, Florence, in 1481. In the foreground many people surround the baby Jesus. In the background behind Jesus, Mary and the Magi are crumbling buildings and men fighting on horseback. Da Vinci captures elements of Matthew 2:1-12 which other artists miss: Jesus the Messiah comes into a world of chaos and decay which needs change. What would we paint into the background to sketch the context in which we tell the story of the Epiphany today? How might our reflection during this Christmas season lead us more deeply into whakawhanaungatanga/making right relationship happen with Atua/God, tangata/people and whenua/land?

Geography and Time

In Mt 2:1, we find Jesus’ birth notice and an introduction to the characters. Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, an insignificant village, about eight kilometres south of Jerusalem, the centre of power. Bethlehem was the ancestral home of David and was where he was anointed king by the prophet Samuel. Jesus, son of David (Mt 1:1, 17, 20), was born there “in the days of King Herod.” At this stage in the story we are given no information about Herod. However it is well-known he was a puppet of Imperial Rome and was notorious for his cruelty, political skill and massive building projects. Then the word “behold” (also used in Mt 1:20, 23) turns our attention to “Magi from the East [who] came from Jerusalem.”

The Magi

The most accurate way to name the visitors from the East is to call them “Magi”. To use “wise men” is too wide a term, “kings” is incorrect and although “astrologers” is nearly correct, it is confusing because of the meaning of that term today. The Magi were a high-ranking, priestly class of political-religious advisors who served the rulers of Media and what later became the empires of Persia (approximately the areas of modern Iran and Iraq). While they had access to the centres of power, they were sometimes seen as a threat to royal power because of their influence in predicting future events and their astrological knowledge. They were regarded as being able to recognise the signs of the times. The Magi from the East were Gentiles and they did not know the Scriptures. However they had alternative ways of knowing — the mystery of a star to find Jesus, and dreams to “take a different way” to avoid Herod. Matthew is highlighting that all do not come to Jesus by the same way. God uses unexpected means. This sets up what recurs in Matthew — Jesus, Israel’s King, is recognised and welcomed by the least expected people.

The Magi come from Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish history and tradition, which in Matthew’s gospel is the stronghold of the corrupt political power and authority of the Jewish leaders. It does not stand for the whole Jewish people. There is a powerful/powerless contrast throughout Matthew — the lowly receive Jesus (his parents, the twelve) and the powerful reject him (Herod, Pharisees, Scribes, Pilate). Frightened that the Magi were seeking the new-born King of Jews, Herod calls in the Jewish leaders, who were colonised and subservient to Rome, to interpret the Scriptures. According to the prophet, a ruler will be born in Bethlehem of Judea (Micah 5:2).

“To Shepherd My People”

Herod sends the Magi to Bethlehem with instructions to bring him word when they had found the child. Setting out they saw the star ahead of them and followed it until “it stopped over the place where the child was.” Jesus is not named but referred to as “the child” for the first of eight times in this chapter. This is significant, for in that cultural world often children were viewed with suspicion and seen as a threat to adult male civic order. They were weak, vulnerable and marginal, as are Jesus and the children massacred (Mt 2:15, 18) in the face of the murderous power of Herod.

“Overwhelmed by joy” (Mt 2:10) when the star stopped, the Magi entered “the household” — not a stable or cave as the shepherds do in Luke’s gospel. The Magi’s actions of prostrating themselves, paying Jesus homage, and “opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh”, evoke many Scripture references. They include the Gentiles’ journey to Jerusalem to worship God (Mic 4:1–2), or the king as representative of God’s justice (Psalm 72:10–11). The coming of the Gentiles is part of the vision of God’s justice being restored on earth (Isaiah 60:14). On such journeys, Gentile kings bring gifts (Ps 72:10). Yet Matthew subverts these biblical traditions, for kings like Herod do not come to worship or welcome Jesus. Rather than the kings themselves, the marginal Magi, advisors of kings, come. And they come not to Jerusalem or the Temple but to insignificant Bethlehem. Rulers of this world, too, assemble against God’s anointed One (Ps 2:2). In Mt 2:6, the new-born king will be a ruler who is “to shepherd my people Israel” (Mic 5:2), which suggests a very different model and function of power.

Gold from the seams of the Earth, frankincense and myrrh (made from tree resin), are the gifts placed before Jesus. How practical such gifts are is not the question. The Magi give what they have. We bring gifts too. What gifts do we place? What “star” guides us? Having met Jesus, will we now take “a different way”and whakawhanaungatanga/make right relationship happen with Atua/God, tangata/people and whenua/land?

Published in Tui Motu magazine. Issue 211, December 2016: 24-25.