It’s no accident the story of the magi is found only in Matthew’s gospel. His community alone would have appreciated the message he conveys by including this unique narrative in his work. Mark, Luke, and John write for Gentile Christians. Matthew writes for Jewish Christians.
Since Christianity began as a Jewish reform movement, Matthew’s church takes us back to the earliest forms of our faith. Its members gather in their local synagogue every Friday night, and are committed to carrying out the 613 Mosaic laws. That’s why many of those who adhere to this “old time religion” are disturbed by non-Jews increasingly taking over “their religion.” By the time Matthew composes his gospel in the late 70s or early 80s, fewer and fewer Jews are giving themselves over to the faith of Jesus, while more and more Gentiles are making that commitment. Those in Matthew’s community who resent this Gentile invasion prompt the evangelist to tell this story of non-Jewish astrologers who follow a star to Joseph and Mary’s house in Bethlehem and worship the new-born King of the Jews.
Of course, as we hear in today’s Third-Isaiah reading, Matthew isn’t the first sacred author to speak about Gentiles following the faith first professed by Jews. Five hundred years before Jesus’ birth, this unnamed prophet talks about “nations walking by the light of Jerusalem and kings by its shining radiance.” Even going so far as to proclaim, “Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of Yahweh.”
But there’s a basic difference between gift-bearing royal foreigners enriching Jerusalem and gift-bearing astrologers arriving in Bethlehem: the former aren’t embracing a faith which their hosts reject. Matthew reminds his readers that the magi are acknowledging Jesus to be someone whom the majority of their fellow Jews reject. The evangelist is asking his community to accept Gentiles into the church as Gentiles. There’s no reason for them to convert to Judaism before they convert to Christianity. In Matthew’s mind, Jews have all they need in their own Scriptures to acknowledge the significance of Jesus’ birth. Herod’s “wise men” provide one of these Scripture proofs. But without any scriptural background, just following their own culture, Gentiles can arrive at faith in Jesus.
Here, following a star-gazing path forbidden to law-abiding Jews under pain of death, these uncircumcised pagans do what the evangelist thinks all Jews should do. If these law-breaking Gentiles can find Jesus without Judaism, why should they be obligated to live their faith in him within the limits of Judaism? Hearing this ultra-liberal message, many in Matthew’s community could no doubt repeat Chester A Riley’s famous line: “What a revoltin development dis is!”
The disciple of Paul responsible for the letter to the Ephesians sums up the Gentile/Christian situation in classic terms. God’s plan, hidden from the beginning of time has only recently been revealed by the Spirit: “that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Few people of faith could have anticipated such a change of direction.
Today of all days, we who follow Jesus should be reexamining any of our practices that keep “outside the faith” certain groups which don’t follow all our rules and regulations. Only when we begin to work at imitating the openness of Ephesians and Matthew will we be able to exclaim with both authors, “What a terrific development this is!”