This is a tough story to read and process. But it has that sense of real possibilities and so it bears diving into. It would be easier to avoid the harsh truths here but in life the easiest thing is rarely the best thing.
To fully grasp the impact of the wise men arriving to visit Jesus we have to look back into history a bit. They’re not three random dudes who show up to drop off some expensive gifts. Doesn’t it seem like they come out of nowhere from the east and no one knows why? They come for a reason and in so doing inadvertently set off a chain of events with some rather important consequences.
Who were these wise men? Wise may be a bit of a misnomer as they were more likely religious seers from Persia. Seers being people who make predictions based on the stars or a roll of the dice or any number of random readings. Magi is a good word but shouldn’t be confused with magicians. These guys are serious about spiritual things but in a different way than we do. In this case, they are responding to what they report as an astral event, meaning something to do with the stars and the skies. Their religion would have found this to be an important event.
If your faith system is entirely different than Jewish people then why pay attention to what the Jews were up to? Why would you know or care? Remember all the stories of the Jewish people being in exile in Babylon? That’s Persia and so the Persian people would have had a fair amount of experience and knowledge about Jewish matters of faith. Maybe they really are wise enough to pay attention to things outside their usual realm and perhaps that’s why they’re making this long trip? One way or the other what it really cool and fascinating about the magi is that they crossed religious, political, and ethnic boundaries to worship the young messiah.
Whatever their unknown and undocumented reasons for road tripping to Judea to see a baby, now you have foreigners coming in uninvited to check out this baby who might be the next King. If you’re the current king, King Herod, you’re not liking this. You’re not liking this talk of a newborn King that is so important that for reasons you don’t understand people are traveling from distant lands to come visit.
Speaking of Herod, King Herod is an interesting character. And by interesting I mean he is a thoroughly horrible human being. Not just a little bit horrible. Not just occasionally horrible. But thoroughly horrible. He makes the grinch look positively friendly and pettable. Herod really has very little claim on being King because he isn’t Jewish and he only has his position because he’s been put there by the Roman authorities. Very few of the people think much of him and for this reason and many others he has something of a bad disposition, not to mention he is extraordinarily paranoid.
When people with a bad disposition and are paranoid don’t get their way, in your experience how do they react? Are they all positive and sunshine?
Herod, a thoroughly horrible human being with a bad disposition and a large dose of paranoia, reacts badly to the three magi. He’s got unknown foreigners in his land seeking another king which puts him over the edge of his paranoia. He tries to enlist the wise men into his evil plotting by having them locate this upstart king so that they upstart can be dispatched with extreme prejudice. The wise men, being wise, not to mention likely having a good disposition and no need for paranoia, don’t fall for Herod’s thinly veiled plan to get rid of the upstart king. They stop by to see Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, leave their gifts and instead of reporting back to Herod they cleverly leave by a different route. Herod, being made a fool of by the three wanderers, didn’t like it very much and in a fit of bad disposition and paranoia has all the innocents in the land slaughtered. Fortunately for our faith and our souls, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had been warned and escaped Herod’s evil plotting.
Here’s the danger of too much power with no fundamental checks and balances. Herod has nothing to stop him from much of, well, anything. He has free rein to do whatever he wants and he does. Not only did he order the slaughter of the innocents he later executes his own wife and a few of his kids for various and sundry failures. Like I say, a thoroughly horrible human being with a bad disposition and a large does of paranoia. When he is threatened he responds with unlimited power and reigns down death.
That’s the lesson for followers of Christ. How we respond to life events, life challenges maybe, is a direct reflection on Jesus. We have a responsibility to respond to things in our life in the way that the bible directs us that Jesus would live. It isn’t that we as followers of Christ have the only answers to all of the worlds issues. We likely don’t. But as followers of Christ the response to being made a fool of can never be something like the slaughter of the innocents.
Our response to any given situation has to be framed by what we understand about our faith. Horrible human being Herod aside, fear makes people do some things they may not ordinarily do.
Here’s an example of what I mean. When I was in pastor training we had to do a semester’s worth of work as a hospital chaplain. I was working the floors at Midlands Hospital in Papillion one day and was referred by staff to see a gentleman who was difficult to work because he was verbally abusive. I kind of think he’d be physically violent if he could get out of bed. I’m looking forward to this, you can believe you me. I knocked on his door as I walked into his room and was promptly called every name in the book but human. I was embarrassed by his barrage of vulgar language and as you know, that takes a fair amount. It took a couple of hours but eventually it sorted out that he was terrified about what was going on. All the medical care was happening so fast that he couldn’t understand it and he was just afraid. And acting out that fear by verbally abusing everyone who came into his room. Which caused the medical staff to get in and get out as quickly as they could. Thus the downward spiral continued.
I don’t know the answer to every situation but I do know we can’t be horrible human beings, responding with violence, verbal or otherwise. We’re called to be followers of Christ and respond from a position of strength. A position of hope. And this way we bring Christ’s love to life.