It is joked that if the three wise men had been women, they would have asked directions and thus arrived in time to help with the birth, cleaned the stable, and brought practical gifts. Well, maybe. But I’m not a fan of the bumbling male motif, especially when the gifts which the wise men brought to the baby Jesus are imbued with deep meaning.
Popular retellings of this story contain as much myth as scripture. We’ve heard “We Three Kings Of Orient Are” so many times that we might forget that the scriptures never tell us how many wise men there were, that they were kings (which doesn’t seem to have been the case), or where they were from. But I grant that “We, an Indeterminate Number of People of Unknown Status Coming from an Unknowable Location” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. And it is perhaps fitting that we don’t know their names–their gift is even more honorable for being anonymous. And while we don’t know much about them, we do know that the word translated as “wise men” and the question they ask implies that they were pagan priests from Persia. This was a group associated with things such as the interpretation of dreams and the study of the stars. The idea of pagan priests might make us uncomfortable–it certainly would have scandalized Matthew’s audience–but it is essential to the story. There are two other references to “wise men” in the NT and they are both very negative. In fact, in both of those instances, the word is translated as “sorcerer.”
The fact that the magi were almost certainly not a part of the covenant people suggests that Jesus is not just the Messiah of Israel, but of the whole world. We see in the wise men’s worship of him a template for all Gentile worship of him. Their story shows that God invites all people to offer up their gifts to Jesus. This point is especially sharp since Matthew’s gospel is so “Jewish.” I am touched by the fact that the Lord would give these wise men a revelation that they could understand–in their own cultural context. Now, they couldn’t understand all of it–that’s why they need the chief priests’ help for the last few miles–but a revelation in the sky that they could understand got them on their way. Truly God speaks to us where we are, in terms we can understand. There are other people that we never would have expected–shepherds, the barren widow Anna, the Syrophonecian woman, the woman who anointed Jesus–who will recognize who Jesus is and act accordingly. It is the same point made in the previous chapter in Matthew where, surprisingly women–and not just any women, but women with foreign, shady connections–appear in Jesus’ genealogy. If there was nothing about them–their foreignness, their being outside the covenant, their strange, mystical beliefs–that would keep them from Jesus, we can be sure that nothing will keep us, either.
Matthew highlights the contrast between the scribes and chief priests–who can rattle off scriptures but have no interest in actually looking for the Christ child–and the wise men–who are pagans but actually care. This tweaks a theme from the Hebrew Bible where the pagan priests are always shown to be inferior to the learning of the covenant people. Examples include Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams that the pharoah’s men cannot, Moses’ ability to perform miracles that the pharoah’s men cannot do, and Daniel’s ability to interpret dreams. So Matthew’s audience brings this expectation to the story. The fact that the chief priests not only don’t best the magi but are in fact bested by them is one of the first of many times in the story of Jesus when the conventional wisdom is overthrown. The gospel requiries us be open to new ideas. This theme takes on another wrinkle when we realize that the wise men are really not that smart on their own: they need help from Herod and can’t make it to the baby on their own, they say to the king, in effect, “Where’s the new king?” which is not exactly a diplomatic way of putting it, and they need to be warned by an angel not to return to Herod. They aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer, and yet . . . their true desire to worship is enough. It is enough to open the windows of heaven so that the knowledge they need, but can’t get on their own will be given to them as they need it.
Note the contrast between Herod’s words that he wants to worship the messiah–which, of course, is just a cover-up–and the actual worship by the wise men. The same words are coming out of the mouth of Herod as come out of the wise men. Herod regarded his own hold on power as the most important consideration, so that undergirds his actions. The chief priests regarded the written scriptures as the most important, and this might explain why they didn’t bother actually following the star. The wise men, on the other hand, regard the new revelation that they are receiving as more important than everything else, and they act accordingly.
Elder Holland, after noting that the wise men appear to have arrived some time after the birth (since Mary and Joseph are described as being “in a house”) wrote: “Perhaps this provides an important distinction we should remember in our own holiday season. Maybe the purchasing and the making and the wrapping and the decorating—those delightfully generous and important expressions of our love at Christmas—should be separated, if only slightly, from the more quiet, personal moments when we consider the meaning of the Baby (and his birth) who prompts the giving of such gifts.”
One obstacle to understanding this story of honoring a baby with valuable gifts is the cultural disconnect: we think it is normal to love and cherish babies and give them gifts, but this was not normal in the ancient world. Rather, they had a pretty callous attitude toward human life; in fact, infanticide was common. There is a letter written within a few years of Christ’s birth that has been preserved from a man to his wife. He writes, “Know that I am still in Alexandria…. I ask and beg you to take good care of our . . . son, and as soon as I receive [my] payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered (before I come home), if it is a boy keep it, if a girl, discard it.” So the idea that any baby–let alone a peasant baby–was worthy of gifts and worship is fairly amazing. The wise men’s wisdom in recognizing the importance of a baby foreshadowed a theme of Jesus’ later ministry: “And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.” We follow in the steps of the wise men when we honor all people.
Gold is the right gift for a king–that’s why the Queen of Sheba brought it to Solomon. We can’t be sure, but it seems likely that the gold paid for Mary and Joseph’s trip to Egypt. This may point to inspiration on the part of the wise men. Behind the gift of gold is the reminder of Mary and Joseph’s intense poverty. Even though Mary and Joseph were in a house by this time, it would have been–based on what we know–an extremely humble home. I’d imagine that our garages are nicer than their home. The picture of gold in that little place is jarring. The wise men’s ability to realize that it belonged there speaks of their spiritual sensitivity. Gold reminds us that Jesus is–despite outward appearances–a King.
Frankincense–or incense–was used in the rituals of the temple. Its fragrance reaching heavenward was understood as a symbol for prayer. Frankincense reminds us that Jesus is a priest. And, much as the smoke of the incense was a symbolic representation of prayers ascending to heaven, he is our link to God.
While there are a variety of uses for myrrh in the scriptures, it was used primarily for embalming the dead. Its only other mention in the gospels is its use in embalming: it is one of the items used in Jesus’ burial. It would be like giving someone a little jar of embalming fluid at a baby shower. Death was there from the beginning. It might seem like an inappropriately somber topic for Christmas, but the only reason that this baby was important would be not his birth, but his death. Testimony. Myrrh reminds us that Jesus will die.
In the Hebrew Bible, gifts were given to kings (not regular people), in a recognition of the king’s superiority over the people. Our practice of gift giving might remind us that, because of Christ’s atonement, we are all royalty. Note that the gifts given were all rare and precious. This was some serious biblical bling! Even more important than their individual symbolism is this fact. We mirror it in our own lives when we give the Savior–and each other–those things that are most valuable, whether it is our time or our best effort or abandoning our favorite sin. The wise men understood Jesus as a combination of king, priest, and one who will die: crucial to understand all aspects of Jesus’ identity. This is a lesson that virtually all of Jesus’ disciples (save one wise woman) will struggle with throughout his mortal ministry.
The holidays are often a difficult time of the year for those struggling with many sorts of trials. I would hope that, in the spirit of the wise men who gave gifts that were supremely appropriate if not entirely traditional, we would be sure that we give gifts and celebrate the holidays in a way that is wanted and that doesn’t inflame the wounds of those who are suffering.
These wise men combined faith and intellect: they had secular learning that helped them know what to expect to see in the skies and they were curious when they saw something other than they expected–and they had the faith to pursue it, the faith to worship the baby, and the faith to listen to directions telling them how to get home. I am inspired by their combination of study and faith.
It is good and right that we honor the givers of gifts. It is pretty common that we condemn the hustle and bustle of Christmastime. But if you’ll forgive the feminist rant, those buyers of gifts and decorators of homes and bakers of cookies are usually women. We want a Norman Rockwell Christmas, but we sometimes criticize those who make it possible. We frequently hear people speak of the magic of Christmas while advocating a simple celebration. That’s a catch-22 for the women who are not only supposed to create magic–but also make it look easy. The giving of gifts is hard work. This story celebrates that work and honors that work.
Their journey was many hundreds of miles–perhaps a thousand. And they went home by a different route, because the Lord directed their feet. Similarly, as we choose to follow Christ we will journey far beyond the familiar and comfortable, but the warning voice of the Spirit of the Lord will be there to guide us far from trouble, if we will but listen to it. We will find ourselves on an unknown route, not of our own choosing. There is no way that the wise men–or us–can return home on the same path, because it is not possible to be the same person that you were before you met the Savior of the world.
Julie M. Smith is the author of Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels, which will be released this month. She has a graduate degree in Biblical Studies from the GTU in Berkeley, CA. She writes for Times & Seasons and lives near Austin, Texas, where she homeschools her children. She is on the executive board of the Mormon Theology Seminar and the steering committee of the BYU New Testament Commentary, for which she is writing the volume on the Gospel of Mark.