WHENCE THE MAGI? Epiphany 2007

January 6, 2013

( Isaiah 60, 1-6, Matt. 2, 1-12)

Where did the Magi come from?

The answer to that depends on where you are looking.

If you are looking at the story in Matthew, then the answer is “They came from the East”. Due East and North East of Jerusalem were Babylon and Assyria, the ancient enemies of Israel. The Jews knew from their own history of the existence of a class of ‘wise men’ or magi in these countries, and especially in Babylon. These were priest-magicians, interpreters of the stars and of dreams – practices that were frowned on by a strict interpretation of Jewish law. Later on the same class of magi were found in the societies of the Medes, Persians and Parthians, and were probably the forerunners of the Zoroastrian priests

If you are answering the question from the point of view of biblical source criticism, then the answer is “They came from the Old Testament, and in particular from the story of Balaam in the Book of Numbers chapters 22-24.”

In this passage we hear how Balak, King of Moab, is alarmed at the approach of the Israelites under Moses, and summons a magus called Balaam from Babylon to put a curse on them. Balaam comes, like Matthew’s magi, ‘apu anatolon’ – from the East. Balaam, however, is influenced by messages from God, ( dreams, angels and a talking donkey!) and far from cursing the Israelites, prophesies that a King of Israel will arise like a star or a comet and defeat Israel’s enemies. This picture of the magi who listen to God is further elaborated by other passages, especially Isaiah 60 which we heard as our OT lesson and Psalm 72, which refer to the kings of the nations drawn by the light of the Jews, travelling to pay homage to Israel and bring gifts, including gold and incense.

If we are looking from a theological viewpoint, however, the answer to the question is “They came from the needs of the community for which Matthew was writing”. Matthew’s Gospel is often referred to as the most Jewish of our four Gospels. It seems that there were a very strong group of Jewish Christians in the community for which he wrote, who saw Jesus both as a second Moses and also as the promised Messiah and descendant of King David. They adhered to the Jewish Law and traditions, and saw Jesus as part of that. However, by the time the Gospel was written in the later part of the first century, Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed in the aftermath of the Jewish revolt of AD70, and Matthew’s part of the Christian community was in exile, perhaps in the East in the countries where magi priests operated. There the community had been joined by Gentile believers, and throughout Matthew’s Gospel we see a struggle going on to reconcile the beliefs of the Jewish and Gentile Christians about who Jesus is, and to whom he brings salvation.

In the story of the magi, Matthew gives his community a picture of strangers and foreigners, members of another religion and culture, who nevertheless recognised Jesus as king, priest and saviour. Their revelation from God comes through the natural world, the rising of a star. They ask the advice of Jesus’ fellow-countrymen, who do as they should, and consult the Scriptures. But having done so, Herod and his advisers get it wrong – while the strangers from the ancient oppressor, led by natural revelation, get it right, and pay homage to the new born king. A further contrast is provided by the story of the slaughter of the innocents which follows in Matthew; the Jewish rulers attempt to destroy the infant – who finds refuge in the country of another ancient oppressor, Egypt.

Matthew’s tale of the magi, therefore can be seen as apologetic for the pagans and foreigners in his Christian community. His magi, like Balaam, are good, listen to God, and work for the benefit of the covenant community. The incense and myrrh they once used for their pagan incantations are now dedicated to God’s saviour. But they don’t become Jewish. When they have paid homage, they return to their own country ( like Balaam) and there is no indication that they change their ways or their religion. They remain different. So, Matthew is saying ( as Luke says in the Nunc Dimittis) the light of Christ is meant for the Gentiles as well, and the presence of Gentile worshippers – who remain different from their Jewish brothers and sisters in the community of the New Covenant – is part of God’s plan too.

And where are they going to? Do the magi have a message for our generation too?

I have recently been reading a book by the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. It is called ‘The Dignity of Difference’ and subtitled ‘How to avoid the Clash of Civilisations’. In the book Sachs reflects on the dangerous state of the world in the 21st century, and in particular on the way in which the clash of different belief patterns – whether they belong to world faiths or to atheism against religious belief threaten to destroy the freedom and prosperity painfully achieved over the preceding centuries. He argues that the only way to deal with this is to make space for difference. This is something stronger than the toleration of religious difference that came after the European wars of religion and as a result of the Enlightenment. This toleration, he says, represented a move from the statement ‘Faith is supremely important, and therefore everyone must have the one true faith’ to ‘Faith is supremely important and therefore everyone must be allowed to live by the faith which seems true to them’.

Toleration followed by pluralism allowed for difference, but still allowed people to maintain the belief that theirs was the only truth. The power of the nation state kept the peace between those whose conception of truth differed. Now, in the global era, he says, that is no longer possible, since the ease of travel and communication in the modern age mean that very small groups of people attempting to impose their vision of truth on everyone can cause major disasters.

Sachs argues that difference is not something to be worked against, but something to be celebrated and recognised as part of God’s plan. It goes further than toleration or pluralism to assert the positive value of difference. Just as in our attempts to preserve the natural ecology of the earth, we try to preserve all the different species of God’s creation, so in the social ecology, we should try to respect and preserve the differences of faith and culture.

This will demand a major shift in attitudes, particularly amongst adherents of the major Abrahamic faiths, who tend to believe that they alone have the whole truth. Sachs argues that truth on earth can never aspire to be the whole truth, and when two truths are in conflict, it is not because one is true and the other false, but because they give different perspectives on reality.

It is hard for us to see God, or good, in those of another colour, faith or ethnic group. But the reality that is God has to be above all religions, because only such a God can be transcendent. God is greater than any religion, and only partially comprehended by any one faith. God is universal, but religions are particular. God is the God of all humanity but no single faith is the faith of all humanity. The one God, creator of diversity, Sachs says, commands us to honour his creation by respecting diversity.

Sachs uses the traditional religious language of ‘covenant’ to argue for an agreement between believers to respect the dignity of difference. Covenants, he says, can only exist between parties who are different ( man and woman in the marriage covenant. God and humanity in the Old and New Covenants of Judaism and Christianity). In a covenant the two parties agree to respect each others’ different characteristics, but to work together for good. Such a covenant has to be based on mutual trust, and not on the threat of enforcement from any outside agency; it has to be made to work through compassion, creativity, responsibility and forgiveness.

Sachs talks about the recognition of the dignity of difference between different faiths. But it seems to me to be an important principle also in this present time between those people who have faith and those who have none; and within faiths and within denominations. In particular, it would make an enormous difference to the Anglican communion at this time if all the warring groups could recognise that no one of them has the whole truth, that God reveals the divine purpose through other channels than the scriptures, and that we don’t all have to worship God or behave in exactly the same way in order to recognise our common loyalty to God and to Christ.

So, as we follow again the particular star by which God brings us to meet with the Christ child, and depart again to our own homes, may we ask ourselves:
Can I recognise God’s purpose in the diversity of belief and practice in the world? Can I be a magus – a wise person – and acknowledge that everyone knows something that no-one else does – and be willing to learn from them? Can I recognise the good, and see God, in one whose faith and ideals are different from mine, while still remaining faithful to the inheritance of truth which my faith gives me?

Can I, like Matthew in the story of the Magi, uphold the dignity of difference?

(Jonathan Sacks. The Dignity of Difference. Continuum. 2002.)

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One Response to “WHENCE THE MAGI? Epiphany 2007”

  1. bobrhodes said

    Brilliant and very clear. Thank you. I never thought about the magi in these terms. The parallel with Balaam makes a lot of sense. Jesus as a second Moses is a very obvious connection now that you have spelled it out and it continues back to Abraham – all three have a similar trajectory in the rabbinic commentaries called midrash.

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