Preparing for Worship – Mary Kay Jackman.
Today in worship we meet the Magi. To Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, the Magi in Matthew’s gospel were neither kings nor wise; they were Persian or Chaldean astrologers. Plus, there may have been more or less than three. Matthew doesn’t elaborate on their number, history or position. They’re just there — to find the newborn “King of the Jews,” not a wise goal in the territory and during the reign of one of the most despised kings in Judean history.
Herod was neither Jewish nor learned in Jewish teaching and tradition; nevertheless, he considered and called himself King of the Jews. To hear that there might be someone else, however young, being called King of the Jews, threw Herod into a whirlwind of violence. After the Magi followed advice from a dream angel and left town without returning to Herod, he ordered the slaughter of all children aged two years and younger in and around Bethlehem.
I sympathize with the Magi, whom Dr. Levine playfully equates with the Three Stooges. Older folks or those who watch old movies on TV know what she means. Who but someone dumb beyond all measure would ask such a question in that place at that time? But to the Magi it was a reasonable question. They had followed signs in the heavens; they apparently knew Jewish Torah and tradition. They meant no harm and had no political agenda; yet they set off a firestorm, a bloodbath, with one simple question.
Here’s where my sympathy for these intrepid travelers kicks in: More than I like to recount, my words have sometimes annoyed, angered, wounded, or made enemies of perfectly fine folks without my realizing how those words could be interpreted. You see, we never know how what we say — in jest or offhand or in all sincerity — will affect the person hearing or reading them. We never know until the person tells us how he or she felt when we said what we said or wrote what we wrote. Moments of having my words returned to me with an interpretation I never imagined are stunning moments seared into memory.
I wonder if the Magi, traveling back to their homeland or following other heavenly signs, ever knew the ultimate fallout of their innocent but politically charged question. I wonder if I’ll ever know the extent of damage my words have caused, whether by others’ misinterpretation or by my misstatement.