[January 4, 2015] The Christian celebration of Epiphany is January 6, but since next Sunday is the Baptism of Jesus and we do not have an opportunity to come together on Tuesday, we celebrate the epiphany (or manifestation) of Jesus to the gentiles today. This is offered as an option in the church’s shared lectionary of public readings.
One tradition is that the season of Epiphany extended from the Baptism of Jesus to the Transfiguration of Jesus, from the first Sunday after the conclusion of the Twelve Days of Christmas to the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. In other words, Epiphany extends from when the voice from heaven first announced, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I have found my delight,” at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan (Matthew 3:17), to the time this voice spoke the same words again, on the Mount of Transfiguration (17:5). The first, though it occurs before his fast in the Judean desert, initiates his public ministry (or apostolate) in Galilee; the second, occurring after the disciples confess him to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” concludes the Galilean ministry, likewise occurring outside of Galilee though on the other side, in the northern mountain range of Hermon in Lebanon/Syria. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), after this, Jesus makes his final journey to Jerusalem (they only record this journey during the period of Jesus’ ministry; John’s gospel shows Jesus making several trips to Jerusalem). The season of Epiphany covers, then, the time of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, when Jesus manifested (“epiphanized”) himself to the (common) people Israel, the “multitudes.” In Matthew’s gospel this coming of Jesus onto the public stage of Israel is the same as the manifestation of the “drawing near” of the kingdom of the heavens first announced by John the Baptist (3:2; see 4:17).
The Epiphany also commemorates the manifestation of Jesus to the gentile world when as a toddler he was manifested to the magi in Bethlehem. This is the text we will consider today. (Another tradition has the season of Epiphany last only until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple. This tradition emphasizes the coming of the magi, the baptism of Jesus and his first miracle at the wedding of Cana. There are still other traditions.)
In four previous posts I said a considerable amount on the passage about the magi, some of it repetitive: in “The Desire of the Nations” (2008), “Gentiles Seek Him” (2010), “The Gentiles Seek Him” (2011), and “The Son of David for the Gentiles” (2013). For those looking for more details, I would refer you to these.
Beginning with a broad perspective, let us consider Matthew’s own when composing this gospel. In 52 CE he would have been in Antioch of Syria, most likely having fled Jerusalem during the persecution of the church by Herod Agrippa 1 in 41 CE (when Peter also left Jerusalem after the martyrdom of James the son of Zebedee). Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, the tyrant of our present text, with messianic ambitions for himself (see Acts 12:22), sought to win favor with “the Jews” (Acts 12:3), an expression used in the Acts of the Apostles to refer to the “party of the circumcision,” that is, the nascent movement of the Zealots inspired by the teachings of intolerance in the Pharisaic school of Rabbi Shammai. The church began reaching out to the gentiles in the towns along the Palestinian-Syrian coast in the years 36-41, the conversion of Cornelius in Caesarea taking place in 40 CE. The proselytism of gentiles itself was not offensive to these zealots because it involved the gentile converting to Judaism, the men being circumcised, men and women agreeing to keep the rules of the Halakah. What was offensive about what the church was doing was that they were receiving the gentiles into their fellowships and treating them as “brothers and sisters,” as equals, simply for forsaking idolatry and adhering to Jesus whom the church claimed is the messiah. These gentiles were not circumcised and were not required to keep the Halakah, only the God’s covenant with Noah. This destruction of the barrier between Jew and gentile was perceived as corrosive to Judaism, not much different than the sacrilege of allowing gentiles beyond the Court of the Gentiles that surrounded the Temple of Jerusalem. It was seen as a desecration of Judaism and therefore an insult to God. Of course not all Jews—not even the majority—felt like this, but this was a vociferous and violent group that made its presence felt not only in Jerusalem but throughout the Roman Empire. To win their favor Herod Agrippa began to persecute the church, searching out and arresting their leaders. This persecution continued until 44 CE when Agrippa died (the “Agrippa” in Acts is this Agrippa’s son). These zealots were in fact the main group that harassed Jesus and to which Jesus was opposed during his ministry (in the gospels this group almost always shows up as the “Pharisees,” Jesus’ constant foil).
By the year 48 the violence of the zealots against messianic Jews and their “Christian” converts (the Latin term “Christian”—probably legal in origin—first referred to gentile converts to the church to distinguish them from proper Jews; traditionally Jews were exempt from civic worship, gentiles were not, and therefore for a gentile to become a “Christian,” someone who avoided civic worship, made them legally vulnerable) reached Antioch and began to spread into Asia Minor and wherever Paul’s apostolate laid foundations. In 49 CE the historical record shows that the Jews are expelled from Rome because of riots in their community over someone named “Chrestus,” a latinization of the Greek word Christos (Christ). This was when Priscilla and Aquila left Rome and set up shop in Corinth.
It was during these years that Matthew composed. Many in the church began to oppose the gentile mission (the word “mission” is the Latin version of the Greek word “apostolate”). It brought persecution on them, not only from the “Jews” but potentially from the Romans; for these gentile converts claimed the exemption from public worship that only Jews were entitled to, and yet they had not converted to Judaism. Perhaps some Jews felt that this threatened their own freedom (which was only traditionally, not legally, granted, because of how ancient their faith was considered to be). In any case, both Acts 15 and Galatians show us this opposition from within the church. Matthew’s gospel shows that the church’s welcome to the gentiles and to all the marginalized (the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”), led by the apostles themselves, goes back to Jesus himself. His gospel is a veritable manual for Christian catechesis, being arranged in discreet teaching sections, but also it is creatively correlated with the annual lectionary readings of Law and Prophets in the synagogues, implying that it was to be read alongside those readings as practically a messianic commentary on them. In this sense, the genre of Matthew’s gospel could be considered Midrash. Within the new messianic communities springing up in all directions, it was to fill the place of the “remembrance” of Jesus in the absence of actual eyewitnesses, thus Justine Martyr in 150 CE refers to the gospels as the “memoirs of the apostles.” As such, to be read during the weekly gathering of the churches when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper, it was treated as “Scripture” and in 1 Timothy 5:18 Paul even calls the gospels such (quoting Luke 10:7; see Matthew 10:10).
The entire gospel according to Matthew is devoted to showing that the church’s mission (apostolate) to the gentiles is integral to the apostolate of Jesus himself, which he handed on to the church in 28:19. First Matthew establishes that Jesus is the messianic King of Israel, and as such he brings near the kingdom of the heavens to humanity on the stage of Israel. Yet already, in the women of the genealogy of Jesus, Matthew shows that God has an interest in the gentile world and has swooped them into the genealogy from the side, as it were. The significance of this is that it highlights the interest in the salvation of the gentiles that we already see in the Psalms and in the later prophecies of Isaiah. The fulfillment of the blessing promised to Abraham includes the gentiles, and in prophecy the fulfillment of the promises to David is likewise the blessing of all the gentile nations. Matthew’s Jesus is very interested in this prophetic interpretation of the Torah (and the histories), and the church saw the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision, at least partially, in the gentile mission of the church.
The story of the magi foreshadows the gospel story of Jesus’ adulthood and the church’s own history as we know it from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles—that is, the last 25 years from Matthew’s point of view (say from 27 to 52 CE). The “king of the Jews” is the gentile version of the “king of Israel” and is the indictment Pilate nailed above Jesus’ head on the cross. It is this “King of the Jews”—though they do not know it—whom the gentiles seek. Using the wisdom of their “sciences” the magi are alerted about his birth and come to Jerusalem (Zion) where they expect to find him. The astronomical sign is no longer in the night sky but while they are in Jerusalem, having come to the attention of King Herod (Herod the Great), a comet appears in the sky moving in the direction of Bethlehem, which they then follow to their goal. (The theory of the comet is only one among several.) Such a sign normally signified political calamities, and Herod was in fact soon to die.
Herod the Great, who in the last decade of his life was quite paranoid, was quite sick towards the end of his life, which probably did nothing for his mood. Whether he actually felt threatened by the comet and the news that the magi brought or just felt insulted by the magi does not matter. His power was limited by the Romans, under whom he ruled, and by the intrigue within his court. Perhaps he felt this bit of information could fall into the hands of those who plotted against him, being used to manipulate the public perhaps. Or he was superstitious or even insane and actually feared the child. In either case the result was the same. He would kill the child and put an end to any rumors these magi might have stirred up.
The prophecy in Matthew 2:6 points to Jesus as the Son of David, into whose lineage Joseph adopted him, but it also describes Jesus as the “shepherd of Israel,” like David. This motif comes up later in the gospel (for example in 9:36 and 10:6) and the prophetic use of it is implied in Jesus’ indictment of Jerusalem in chapters 21—22. “My people Israel”: Jesus always refers to his people as Israel (8:10; 9:33; 10:6, 23; 15:24, 31; 19:28; 27:9).
The magi followed their own wisdom to arrive at the scriptures of Israel, just like the gentiles who attended the synagogue as “God-fearers” throughout the Mediterranean basin and into Parthia. The “God-fearers” were the first gentiles that the church’s mission sought out. The scriptures pointed them to the humility and humiliation of the Messiah. Likewise, following the star to Bethlehem the magi find that the little child with his mother Mary are “commoners” (I wonder why Joseph is not mentioned, when he is the central figure in 1:18-25).
Perhaps, when they arrived in Bethlehem, the magi had to search for Jesus. Probably what would have led them to the right house were the tales they heard about the shepherds who came to this particular child after seeing a vision of angels. No doubt the magi would have been surprised to find the Messiah born in such humble conditions, among the poor and among animals, and first recognized by poor people who watched over the animals at night. Shepherds “were usually ranked with ass drivers, tanners, sailors, butchers, camel drivers, and other despised occupations. Being away from home at night they were unable to protect their women and therefore were considered dishonorable. In addition, they often were considered thieves because they grazed their flocks on other people’s property” (Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh’s Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992, on page 296). This must have surprised the magi—the God of Israel is certainly a very interesting god, they must have thought–yet they nonetheless did obeisance to the child and offered the gifts they brought. Likewise, the first gentile believers must have been similarly surprised by the story of the humility and humiliation of a crucified Messiah, yet they believed.
The magi, apparently coming from wealth, honor the child with treasures. Christian tradition (and I myself) has made much of the symbolic import of the three gifts, and has associated this with the prophecies about the nations (and their kings) honoring and paying tribute to Israel and its god, the God of all the earth, with the gifts of their wealth. What did Matthew, however, intend for us to see? Certainly the fact that Jesus was honored as the King of Israel by gentiles would have evoked the current controversy of the church and confirmed the position of the apostles. Everywhere that the Gospel spread in the world, pagans were turning to the God of Israel in order to worship the Messiah, the King of Israel. This must have been surprising. In this comparison, the star that led the magi played the same role played by the apostolic preaching and the inner light that it evoked within gentiles. It led gentiles to the Scriptures of the Jews and to the humility of the Christ.
When Paul leaves Antioch this time, on what is called his “third missionary journey,” he will be gathering an offering from the churches established in the Diaspora (among the gentiles)—at least the churches around the Aegean Sea where his work was now going to be centered—to bring to the poor in Jerusalem (the poor among the “sanctified,” the saints, i.e., the church there). According to my calculation, this took place after Matthew’s gospel was published. The correlation between Paul’s collection and the magi’s bearing of gifts for the Christ-child is at least interesting. They both seem to echo the scriptural prophecies about the messianic age.
Another thought that runs through Matthew’s gospel is the matter of the working of the kingdom. The kingdom of the heavens is not bound to the limits of church and synagogue but is actively working among people “outside,” even among gentiles. This make sense if, as Paul argues, the God of Israel is not the God of the Jews only but also of gentiles. The God of Israel (revealed to Israel and with whom Israel is in covenant, not because they covenanted with God as people say the founders of the American republic did but because God covenanted with them) is the God of all the earth, and the God of all nations, even though they be ignorant of this. There are “the kingdoms of the world” with their Caesars and Herods and Pontus Pilates and all who serve mammon, that belongs to the devil, but there is also the kingdom of the heavens at work on the same ground—the ground of the human race, perhaps of the interior life of humanity. In chapter 1 of Matthew we already see God at work in Tamar, Rahab the harlot, Ruth and Bathsheba, all gentiles. Now we see in chapter 2 God at work in faraway Persia among those who read the stars. When the apostles sailed off to the distant isles and coastlands, they found that God was already at work among the people to whom they come, preparing their way. When we come to chapter 25, where Jesus describes the Day of the Judgment of the Gentiles in verses 31-46, we find that there are sheep among them and that they are not all goats. The righteous gentiles in this passage are not Christian (and of course they are not Jews, being gentile). Yet God was at work among them producing righteousness (verses 37, 46).
I make one further point today. The magi went to Bethlehem in search of the Christ-child. “The chief priests and scribes of the people”—associated with the Temple—served the tyrant king and noticeably did not go to Bethlehem even though their biblical scholarship gave the magi the instruction they needed. The chief priests and scribes apparently gave no credence to what the magi said, or they would have gone with them. Moreover they endangered the Child. Instead of the chief priests and scribes going to Bethlehem to give homage to the Messiah, Herod sent his soldiers to Bethlehem to kill the Messiah. Yet the chief priests were the shepherds of Israel. They failed in their duty and allowed wolves to ravage the flock. Their assistance to Herod enabled him to slaughter the innocents.
The church has often played the role of the chief priests and scribes while some in the gentile world got it right—following the way of Jesus outside the Faith, sometimes without even knowing it. Sometimes when the “least of these my brethren” have been attacked by the world, many in the church have stood by, either silent or taking the side of Herod, while gentile “unbelievers” have risked life and limb to defend them. This has been and continues to be true in the United States when it comes to the treatment of people of color. And Christians attack the transgender “little ones who believe in me,” causing many to stumble (sometimes even the vulnerable to commit suicide), while righteous gentiles help and defend them. This is the kingdom of the heavens at work among the gentiles, but it also puts those who are supposed to be the shepherds (the literal meaning of the word “pastor”) to shame. Also how many believers struggling with sexual orientation have been harassed by Christians led on by their pastors? These Christians are causing the little ones to stumble. According to Jesus, “their angels in the heavens”—the heavenly messengers of these little ones—“continually behold the face of my Father who is in the heavens,” and those who cause them to fall will not be accounted guiltless. Indeed, “they would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round their neck,” for they will “be cast into the Gehenna of fire” (Matthew 18:1-14). Sometimes the “sons of this age” know how to follow Jesus better than the “sons of light.” That is a real shame.
When society starts calling Christians to account because of their hypocrisy, bigotry, intolerance of any kind of nonconformity, hatred and general nastiness, let not Christians call this persecution. Instead, let them repent and make amends. After all, no one is persecuting them for following Jesus. They are only asking Christians—whether they know it or not—to actually be responsible to the Gospel and to stop abusing the Name of God.
Nevertheless, in spite of the collusion of the chief priests with the powers of the world, the magi did find the Christ-child and did offer him their homage and gave him from their treasures. Even though the “shepherds of Israel” failed in their duty, enlightening the gentiles only by the accident of their knowledge while helping the wolf wage war against the sheep—just like today—the gentile outsider and the poor of Israel (the despised shepherds to whom the angels came) did act appropriately and did discover the most beautiful gem in the creation, the presence of Emmanuel, God incarnate among us, humble and meek and repeatedly in humiliating circumstances. They gave what they had in the way they knew how, honoring the One who has come to save them. So today, the light of revelation manifesting the way to Jesus and revealing him, comes to those whom people least expect—to the pagan, to the poor, to despised races, to the gay and lesbian and bisexual, and to the transgender and genderqueer. Let us not despise the working of the kingdom of the heavens in our midst lest we find ourselves serving the devil.
A note: Often (not always) when someone commits suicide, they have tunnel vision and see themselves as having no other option, choosing this as the only way to relieve the mental pain of self-hatred and self-loathing which they see as unending. They are depressed and feel hopeless. That depression is often the result of suppressed anger, or rather their anger redirected at themselves. In their rage they commit murder, treating themselves as they would never be willing to treat anyone else. Yet that act is often an act of violence, a kind of last revenge, having the last word with those who have angered them so much. It is not an innocent but a selfish act that they know, subconsciously most of the time, will hurt others (consciously they are in denial, imagining that no one would care and might even be relieved by their death). The method that they use to wreck this revenge, shooting themselves or throwing themselves in front of a truck, is also telling. Can a person not know—at least on some level—the devastation that they would wreck on the driver of the truck that they have decided to throw themselves in front of? Can they not know, after they blow their brains out, that someone will have to deal with the carnage they left behind, and how this will affect them? They know on some level. If a person asphyxiates themselves on a back road or a lot somewhere or in the family garage, can they not consider that their dead body will be found by someone, perhaps by children playing? Still, the reason a person may turn their anger inward may be because they feel powerless or trapped by their circumstances. However, they are more afraid than powerless, even if it is for good reason.
So when a transgender person or a person wrestling with their sexual orientation commits suicide, this is a double tragedy. They are justifiably angry, no doubt, for which others probably bear some if not a great deal of responsibility. They are also unable to express their anger in an appropriate way, usually because they are so afraid of their anger and what they would do with it and how they imagine others might react. Usually they think expressing their anger will make things worse. There can be many reasons for their fear, some justifiable, some misplaced by reason of their psychological history. Their act of suicide is an act of rage—I speak generally still—and it is always sad. In the end, the person herself or himself is responsible for their own act and before God will have to answer for it. With God there is always understanding and mercy. God understands the person’s anger, and God understands how it came to this kind of expression. Ultimately, the act of suicide comes out of a pathology of the soul. It is not for us to blame the one who committed suicide, any more than we can blame someone for being sick. They may or may not have been able to prevent it, depending on many things. Suicide is often the result of anger taken out on oneself. It is tempting to blame what or who seems to be the source of that anger, but without close knowledge (like that of a psychoanalyst) it is often impossible to know what that source really is. It is not always what the person at the time of their suicide thinks it is. The direct source is a hurt and a perception of its cause. The perception may or may not be accurate. There are many reasons why we perceive things the way we do; sometimes are perceptions are very far off.
So Jesus tells us not to judge others; instead to love them. We do not want to judge a person who commits suicide but instead to love them, nor do we want to blame parents, spouse, siblings, classmates, or church people. Instead, we leave all that blaming in the hands of God. The question that faces us is not who to blame, but how can we love the survivors? And how can we prevent this from happening again? This is what I think Jesus would want of us.