The story of the magi foreshadows later developments in Matthew’s narrative. Even in infancy Jesus inspires both worship and hostility, responses that are repeated throughout the story.
Worship – The magi represent the first of many characters to worship Jesus in Matthew (2:11; compare 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:9, 17), a point that may be obscured in English Bibles that choose a soft translation for proskyne´o. In this Gospel, the latter word refers to a type of devotion shown only to God (Matt 4:11). Thus, the attribution of worship to Jesus here and elsewhere in Matthew has Christological significance, marking Jesus as the one in whom God is present (1:23).
Hostility – The story also foreshadows the opposition that will be shown to Jesus by the powerful people of his day. In this story, the religious leaders of Israel do the bidding of a political ruler who wishes to destroy Jesus. Later the situation will be ironically reversed: the political ruler (Pilate) will do the bidding of religious leaders who have decided Jesus must die (27:1-2, 11-26).
A literary masterpiece, this brief episode in Matthew’s story has captured the imagination of Christians for centuries and inspired the formation of numerous legends. The magi came to be identified as kings, probably due to an association of this passage with Isaiah 60:3, part of our First Lesson for today. They came to be called “wise men,” an identification so pervasive that it is even used in English translations of the Bible (including NRSV). In the Middle Ages, the Western Church decided there were three magi (the Eastern church has twelve) and assigned them names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.
Such legends are not insignificant for Christian piety, but they may distract us from the story Matthew tells. Matthew’s story is indeed about kings and wise men, but these figures are people other than the magi. The kings in Matthew 2 are Herod and Jesus. Herod exemplifies the sort of king whom Jesus later denounces in Matthew 20:25. He is a tyrant who lords over those he rules rather than serving them. He is not a ruler who “shepherds” God’s people (v. 6). By contrast, the infant king Jesus is helpless and vulnerable, a ruler whose power is hidden in humility (compare 21:5). The wise men in Matthew 2 are the chief priests and the scribes who function as Herod’s key advisors. Learned in the scriptures, they possess academic knowledge that both Herod and the magi lack. But what good does it do them? It does not lead them to their Messiah but causes them to become involved in a plot to kill him.
Responsible exegesis has always resisted the identification of the magi as kings, but it is the identification of the magi as “wise men” that may ultimately be more problematic: a major theme in Matthew is that God does not reveal things to “the wise and intelligent” (11:25). Such withholding of revelation, furthermore, is actually evident in this text, but only with regard to the chief priests and scribes, the true “wise men” in the story.
If the magi are not kings or wise men, what are they? In Matthew’s narrative, kings are contrasted with servants (20:25-28) and wise men are contrasted with infants (11:25). The magi in Matthew 2 are depicted as persons who do as they are instructed, who seek no honor for themselves, and who gladly humble themselves, kneeling even before a woman and a child. Clearly, they fit the image of servants better than that of kings. Surprisingly, they also embody perfectly the two traits that are ascribed to infants in Matthew’s story. They are persons to whom God reveals what is hidden (11:25) and from whom God derives worship or praise (21:16). If Jesus as a literal infant is contrasted here with Herod, the magi as metaphorical infants may be contrasted with Herod’s advisors, the wise men of Israel.
In short, the central message of this text may be framed as an answer to the question, whom does God favor? Not kings or wise men, but the magi who embody qualities that this Gospel will declare antithetical to the traits of the royal and the wise. Ironically, in recasting the story so that the magi actually become kings or wise men, readers subvert the message until the text actually supports notions it was intended to suppress. But we must not be arrogant in judging such tendencies too harshly. They tell us that the message of this text has been a hard one to hear. It still is.
A common theme in the three lessons appointed for this day is the manifestation of God to people outside the religious community. Isaiah reminds the community of its call to be a light to the nations and destroys the false dichotomy between internal and external ministry by suggesting that expansion and restoration are integrally connected. The author of Ephesians suggests that the ultimate purpose of God is the unification of humanity in a truly multicultural community where all distinctions between “insiders” and “outsiders” have vanished. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us that such distinctions began to erode with the coming of Christ, who was revealed to some who were thought to be on the outside and paradoxically rejected by many who were thought to be on the inside. The church’s observance of epiphany ought not be a triumphal occasion for those who have seen the light to celebrate their privileged status. The lessons appointed for this day encourage humble admission that God’s glory may be manifested where we least expect it. Sometimes God’s people become light for others (Isa. 60:3; Eph. 3:10); sometimes they appear blind to the light others can see (Matt. 2:1-6). But always, the light is there, as God graciously, mysteriously, and defiantly breaks into human lives.