Every December, the first chapters of Matthew and Luke get their time in the spotlight. With Christmas looming on the horizon, all of Christianity flips to the beginning of Jesus’s story and retreads familiar paths. The inn, shepherds, and angels all have their shares of the stage—both in weekly readings but also in pageants and dramas and special stage designs.
But once the new year rolls around, the Christmas trees end up brown and waiting for the garbage truck and the snow transforms from magical into malicious. As we buckle down to face the balance of winter, we also tend to neglect the beginning of Jesus’s story.
In the opening pages of Matthew’s gospel, he traces the fulfillment of several Old Testament promises to the feet of Jesus—tiny and swaddled though they may be. In the middle of Matthew’s quest to show off Jesus as the promised Messiah, we find the story of the Wise Men, the Magi, or the Kings. No one’s really sure just who they were and church tradition has argued for each. But Matthew isn’t really concerned with who they are beyond their origins in the east. He has another agenda.
In chapter two of the first gospel, we meet two sets of powerful people: Herod the king and the emissaries from the east. At the center of the drama that plays out over the next dozen verses lies infant Jesus. And he’s not even a major character in the small narrative but rather the catalyst for a bigger question that Matthew asks both his original audience as well as you and me:
When presented with the claims about Jesus, what will you do with him?
Often when we talk about Jesus we go straight to his sermons or his parables or his miracles as reasons to follow him. But the wise men had less material to work with. All they had was the simple truth that the king of the Jews had arrived, likely based on the writings of Daniel and the lore passed around by Jewish exiles in Babylonia and Assyria. The lion-timing prophet promised that an Israelite conqueror would one day come to power. They’d heard about Jesus without actually hearing about him. All they knew was that, one day, a king would come and they wanted to give that king the respect he was due.
Herod, on the other hand, had a little bit more. When the wise men showed up at the palace in Jerusalem, the paranoid king had the luxury of turning to the scribes and priests for the answer to their question: “Where is this newly born king?”
The priest and the scribes had the answer ready—they had more than just the writings of Daniel in exile. They had all of the Hebrew Scriptures. They had the prophecies that went back to Genesis about the promised deliverer of God’s people. And they had the answer to the question ready on their lips: Micah promised that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
Seldom do we stop and think about the two groups at that moment in the story. Instead we race to watch the wise men lay their gifts at the feet of infant Jesus. And we’re right to celebrate them. The men from the east were armed with little more than a promise of impending war led by a conquering Israelite king and they responded by traversing afar to pay homage to him. But the people that should have been looking for and longing that very same king quaked in fear at the news that he’d been born—Herod and all Jerusalem with him.
You know the rest of the story—we recite it every Christmas. Herod tried to dupe the men from the east into leading him to the young king’s doorstep where he could do what Herod did best—kill his competition. To their credit, the wise men chose to listen not to Herod but to the angelic warning of the God who led them to Jesus in the first place. Herod’s anger at the betrayal culminated with the slaughter of hundreds of infants, and the contrast could not be clearer.
When faced with everything he knew about what Jesus was supposed to be, he chose to respond with violence. The wise men on the other hand had even less information about the newborn king of Israel, and they still chose to pay homage to him. In the end it didn’t matter how much information each group had. What mattered was what they did with the truth they were given.
Before the Sermon on the Mount, before the parable of the Good Samaritan, before he walked on water, both Herod and the men of the east had a choice: submit to the child king or rebel. In our lives, we face a similar question. What will we do with Jesus?
We don’t have him striding across the water in front of our eyes or healing our great-aunt’s colon cancer. But do have what’s been written about him. And that’s enough for us to make our decision. When Matthew pieced together the first chapters of his gospel, he wanted to prove to his audience that Jesus was exactly what the Old Testament promised. Like the wise men and Herod, it was up to his audience to decide what they’d do with him.
The same question should echo in our ears every time we think of the wise men, not just when snow’s on the ground and lights hang in the trees. We have both the Old and the New Testaments. We have the testimony of all those who’ve gone before us. It’s up to us now to answer the question—what will we do with Jesus?