When Christmastime rolls around, we turn to the Gospel of Matthew usually for one story—the arrival of the wise men. And that makes sense—unlike Luke who tried to give his readers the most complete picture of Jesus’s life and ministry, Matthew had a narrower goal: Prove to his readers that Jesus was the one that the whole Old Testament anticipated. Not as interested as the doctor in providing every detail from Jesus’s birth, Matthew honed his story to reflect only that which would show his readers that Messiah had come.
So in the opening pages of his gospel, the former tax collector 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 possibility. 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 we 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-taming prophet promised that an Israelite conqueror would one day come to power. The eastern rulers had heard about Jesus without actually hearing about him. All they knew was that someday 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 the magi. Those men from the east were armed with little more than a promise of impending war led by a conquering Israelite king and they still responded by traversing afar to pay homage to him. But what we often miss is the simple fact that 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. We make Herod a villain as we read his reaction in murdering the children, but we fail to see the problem that catalyzed the process from the beginning. God had given his people all the information they could possibly need or want about the coming Messiah. And they used that information to try and kill him.
The men from the east were the ones who stood to lose the most if the infant king of Israel rose to power. The prophecies of Daniel loomed over their heads. If Jesus survived, their very lives could be forfeit. But instead of seeking the child to assassinate him, they went to adore him.
The difference becomes even more poignant when we read that 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 commands 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 paranoia, fear, and violence. The promise of the Old Testament prophecies was only peace for Israel and Jerusalem. Yet the people in power in the Jewish community saw God’s promised peace-maker as a threat to their own authority. Rather than celebrate the miraculous salvation God brought to their doorstep, they rejected it and slaughtered children.
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. And the information they did have promised the destruction of their homelands. And yet the men of the east chose to submit themselves humbly to the helpless king of a land not their own.
In the end it didn’t matter how much information each group had. What mattered is 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 walking water in front of our eyes or healing our great-aunt’s bunions. 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.
When Christmas rolls around, it’s easy to let the child-king get lost in the busyness of the season. We pay homage with little nativity scenes and going to church a few extra times, but in our hearts, we must ask the question: Will I submit to him? Will I risk my livelihood, my reputation, and my very breath to serve the infant I celebrate this holiday season? Will he hold the utmost place in my mind? Or will I pay him only enough respect to look good and then go on with my life clutching all the power to myself?
We may not set out to murder infants, but we do insulate ourselves from the call to follow Jesus in the way we treat him during this Christmas season. And so Matthew’s question should echo in our ears every time we think of the wise men, and 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?