Saturday, January 6, 2018

Another Road (Word Variation)

We’ve all played telephone at some point in our lives—you know, that game where there’s a line of people (usually kids) and the person at one end whispers a message in the ear of the person beside them, and then they whisper it to the next person and so on and so forth. The person at the opposite end of the line gets to announce out loud the message they have received. It’s seldom the same as it started out.

And so it is with many stories from the Bible. They start out one way—which is usually their written form—but end up as something very different. And I think the best example of this odd game of scripture telephone is the story at the beginning of the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel. It’s a story that really catches our fancy, but the story we tell ourselves isn’t necessarily the story that’s in the Bible.

For example, there’s nothing in the story that refers to the men who visited Jesus as kings. They were seeking a King. And they visited another king.
But they themselves were not kings. Matthew calls them μάγοι, or magi ( if you read as much fantasy literature as I do, you’re probably more comfortable calling them mages), which might be translated as wise men.

And then there’s the number of them. It’s almost impossible for us to comprehend this—so deeply ingrained is the number three in our picture of the story—but Matthew never tells us how many there were. It could’ve been two or it could’ve been a hundred. All we know is that the Bible tells us of 3 gifts they brought with them. Three people can bring three gifts. But so can two… Or ten…. We have no idea.

Those are a couple of the things we get wrong about the story. There are also several things that confuse us. Like, what exactly was that star? We don’t think it was a comet—Halley’s Comet didn’t appear anywhere around the time that Jesus might’ve been born (which was probably actually a few years before the year 0 AD), and there’s no historical record of any other great comets in the night sky around that time. But at some point around that time, the planets Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction, and that’s the sort of thing mages from the east might’ve noticed. And since Jupiter is thought of as the royal planet, and Saturn was often associated with the Hebrew nation, it makes sense that this led these mages to seek One who was destined to be King of the Jews. [1]

And then there’s the time and place of their arrival. How old was Jesus at that point? He was still in Bethlehem and not Nazareth where his parents actually lived, so he must’ve been quite young. But there’s no mention of a stable or a manger.

These are just a few of the things that might give us pause about the story of the magi following the star. But what these problems don’t do is spoil the theological statement being made here. The first important part of that statement is that Jesus is a King, but not the kind of king Herod was. And we see later that he’s not the kind of king Caesar was, either. He’s a King of a different order—the King of kings, in fact. And by that, I mean all kings. The acknowledgement of his kingship by these strangers who didn’t belong to the Hebrew nation is the first hint we get that Jesus was born for everyone, both Jew and Gentile. The gifts they give him are also symbolic: of royalty, of priesthood, and of sacrifice. The meanings of the gifts are taught us in the song We Three Kings—a song whose title should now make us a bit uncomfortable.

And those are just some of the more obvious things. There’s a lot of subtlety as well, and one of things about the story I like best are the very last words of the passage as it was read earlier: They left for their own country by another road.

Going back by a different way than the one we came is shorthand for something. It means something changed. Perhaps we’re in more of a hurry. Or perhaps we have more time on our hands. Or perhaps we learned something we didn’t know before.

Think of it this way. Say you live in a huge city with a subway system, and that’s how you commute back and forth to work. You live in one neighborhood and your work in another clear on the other side of the city. You know the area you live in. It’s where you walk and shop and play and visit. And you know the area where you work—you also shop there, and you go to lunch and run errands. But the land in between? It’s just names of stations and dots on a transit map—you’ve almost never explored those neighborhoods. The map may be an excellent representation of how to get from one place to another underground, but it’s a very poor representation of how things actually look aboveground.

Which can lead to some interesting exercises like this one described by Bill Bryson in his book about Britain, Notes from a Small Island:

Go with somebody who doesn’t know a certain part of London to Bank Station and tell them to take the Tube (aka the London Underground) to the Mansion House station, while you walk there. Using the standard underground map, which is very easy to read, they will take a Central Line train… change to a Circle Line train heading east and travel five more stops. This might take quite a while, depending on how long they have to wait for their connection at Liverpool Street. When they finally arrive at their destination and emerge from underground, what they’ll discover is that they’re in fact only 200 feet down the street from Bank Station, where they started their journey, and that by hoofing it, you’ve had enough time to eat breakfast and do some shopping while waiting for them. [3] 

Once we get to know something or somebody, our perception of it—or them—changes. The way I get around Huntsville, for example, is very different now than it was last year when I first arrived. Back then, Huntsville was simply a series of destinations and right and left turns. I had no real picture of the overall reality. Now I feel a lot less hassled getting where I’m going because I know more than just what Google Maps tells me.

And so it is with people. Once we get to know someone, we understand them a lot better. We know a bit more about what makes them tip. Sometimes we are even privileged to know why they’re like they are (but not always).

Being a Christian is a lot like getting to know a place and getting to know a Person. We have roadmaps such as the Bible and creeds and the order of worship. And of course the reason we have those things is so we can better find Jesus—encounter Jesus. And ours is a church that believes that no two people find Jesus in exactly the same way and in exactly the same place. In fact, sometimes we don’t find Jesus at all. Instead, Jesus finds us. We believe this is true, because the Bible teaches us this. Just look at how Jesus appeared in the first place:
  • Mary gave birth to him. 
  • Joseph dreamed of him. 
  • The shepherds were sent there by the angels. 
  • And the wise men were led by a star. 
  • Martha and Mary encountered them in their home. 
  • The Samaritan woman met him at a well. 
  • Zacchaeus spied him from a sycamore tree. 
  • Peter and Andrew met him on the lakeshore. 
  • The woman caught in the act of adultery in a place of execution.
And not only did each of these people meet Jesus in a different place under unique circumstances, but Jesus message to each of them was different. Healing, forgiveness, revelation, invitation—no two stories were alike, but does that mean that some were made whole and others left wanting? Or should we simply accept the fact that there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all Christianity, and that each variation results in the salvation of the one who encounters Jesus with faith?

The real litmus test for whether or not an encounter with Jesus is genuine or complete should not be, “Was it like mine?” but rather did it transform? Did the person who met Jesus go about their life as they always had before, or did they follow a different path after meeting Jesus than the one they were following on their way into the encounter?

I read an article recently by someone who observed apes who’d learned sign language. It’s an amazing accomplishment that demonstrated great intelligence on the part of non-human animals. But one interesting fact stands out: Though apes can use sign language to state facts or to make requests—some even used sign language to mislead in order to get something they want—they never use it to ask questions. It never occurs to any of them that another living entity might possess knowledge that they didn’t have.

One of the most important and unique things about being human, then, is our ability to ask questions—to acknowledge that another knows something we don’t, and that our encounter with another person might result in learning. To learn from another is to be changed, and I think that’s what happened to the magi at Jesus’ cradle.

We’ll never know what questions they asked, and we’ll never know what answers they received. But something happened in that meeting that changed the world, that opened up possibilities that hadn’t existed before. And the main thing Christians have celebrated in that meeting—in the theological and historical sense—is that the visit of the wise men to the Baby Jesus was the origin of the idea that Jesus did not just come for one chosen people, but that in him, all people were chosen by God. God used astrology of all things to lead these men to a King who wasn’t supposed to be their king—and it transformed the way they looked at the world.
—©2018 Sam L. Greening, jr 

  1. N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), p. 10.
  2. Matthew 2:12b.
  3. Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), p. 18.

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