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JANUARY 8, 2012: EPIPHANY

Readings: 

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

There's a reason Matthew narrates the story of the magi. He's the only evangelist to write for a Jewish/Christian community. The other three direct their gospels to Gentile/Christian churches. Most sacred authors gently try to expand the faith of their readers; in today's gospel, Matthew employs a sledgehammer.

We naturally try to restrict things and persons which are beyond us into patterns of behavior with which we're comfortable. God's relationship with us certainly falls into that restricted category. Many Christians, for instance, believe God works only through and on behalf of Christians. I presume many Muslims and Hindus fall into the same trap. There's no doubt many Jews at the time of Matthew were also guilty of restricting God's actions to their specific religion, even some Jews who had committed themselves to imitating Jesus.

As we hear in today's Third-Isaiah passage, the classic Jewish prophets often tried to expand the vision of the Chosen People to include non-Jews in Yahweh's plan of salvation. "Nations (Gentiles) shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance." In other words, "If you live your Jewish faith correctly, even non-Jews will be compelled by your example to give themselves over to Yahweh."

Not only that, but a time when Jerusalem and its temple are nothing but a pile of rubble, the prophet believes those enlightened Gentiles will give you the wherewithal to be a mighty nation. "... The riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you. 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."

Yet, there's no reason to believe such Yahweh-oriented Gentiles will remain Gentiles. The presupposition is they'll eventually convert to Judaism. The problem Jesus' first Jewish followers quickly surfaced was that's not how the Holy Spirit was guiding them in the case of Gentiles who also wanted to follow Jesus. At first, such Christ interested non-Jews were expected to convert to Judaism before they could imitate the risen Jesus. Only after the men were circumcised and both men and women committed themselves to keeping the 613 Mosaic laws could they become Christians.

Eventually liberals won the day. People, like Paul and Matthew, contended that Gentiles, as Gentiles, could be followers of Jesus. The Pauline disciple responsible for Ephesians states,"... Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel." One no longer must be a Jew in order to be a Christian.

That's where Matthew's magi come in. They're uncircumcised, pagan, Gentile astrologers who eventually travel miles to discover "the newborn king of the Jews," while Herod and his Jewish Scripture-knowledgeable court refuse to go the relative short distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem to find the child. Not only that, the magi reach their destination by following a star: a practice forbidden to Jews under pain of death!

Matthew's message is clear: God works through people and means which some in his community would restrict God from working. Those who correctly follow Jesus must constantly go beyond such limits in order to discover God working in their everyday lives.

There's just one last point: the myrrh. It's an oil frequently employed to anoint dead bodies. (One of my professors always referred to it as "embalming fluid.") It's Matthew's way of reminding his readers that those who follow Jesus must, like even the child Jesus, be prepared to die. Perhaps we must die every day by permitting God to break through the restrictions we've imposed on her.