With Christmas and Epiphany approaching, the story of the “wise men” from the East will once again grab our attention. From Christmas carols to pageant plays, the “three kings” bearing gifts to baby Jesus will get some limelight. But I think Christians have not reflected deeply enough on the story’s radical significance.
First of all, “wise men” or “kings” are poor translations of the original Greek word “magi.” “Magicians” would be closer to the original meaning of pagans who specialize in soothsaying, divination, and astrology. The ancients might call them “sorcerers.” Some historians label them as the scientists of their time. For the ancient Jews, these Magi would be dabbling in detestable, even sinful, God-forbidden arts (Deut. 18:9-14).
Furthermore, the Magi were pagan Gentiles. Historians think they were likely either Persians or Arabians. By all counts, the ancient Jews would consider the Magi as religious and cultural outsiders, probably worthy of God’s judgment for their false religious beliefs and their sinful practice of reading signs.
Thus it is remarkable that Matthew recorded this story (Matt. 2:1-12). Bible scholars believe that Matthew was written primarily for a Jewish audience. Imagine how surprised the Jewish readers would be to find that God used these detestable pagan outsiders—even used their Eastern astrological “science”— to reveal the true divinity and kingship of Jesus as the Messiah. The contrast is striking. The Jewish leaders and chief priests, despite having God’s Scriptures, did not know or bow to the Messiah, and they needed the pagans to provoke them to search the old prophecies. But the Magi, through only God’s general revelation in the stars, sought the Christ and worshiped him. And Jesus received their gifts. In this story, the “outsiders” were more righteous and more aligned with God’s purpose than the “insiders.”
The story of the Magi is a cautionary tale for us. Despite having and knowing the scriptures, are we, the Christian “insiders,” still missing out on God’s mission and God’s purposes? Should we be less quick to cancel “outsiders” with their insights, knowledge, and science simply because we have always thought them to be detestable and wrong? Could God actually use these detestable “outsiders” to bring valuable gifts to the church?
Church history shows that the church has often acted more like Herod than Jesus in regards to “outsiders.” We often learn from outsiders only enough to attack their insights and protect our own agendas and our status quo. We have even sacrificed our own children, metaphorically speaking, in doing so. How many church members have been driven out of the church due to Christian judgmentalism about new ideas that are influenced by “outside” people and practices?
We in the Western church often fail to recognize that we already borrow much from our Western culture. Our Christianity is not pure. We often fail to genuinely learn from Eastern and Southern Christians. My eyes were opened when I read the book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, and I look forward to its sequel, Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes. We should all be reading them to recognize how our biblical readings are already influenced, if not distorted, by Western culture.
Our Western Reformed heritage can use gifts from those outside our tradition, just as they can use gifts from us. But too often we choose the posture of a proud teacher instead of a humble student. May the Magi’s story humble us to change that posture.