The book of Numbers is part of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. All literate Jews would have known this passage, and the others would have known of it. Because of it Messianic expectations included that a star would be a sign of his arrival.
This is the primary background for today’s gospel but there is one other dimension. Matthew calls the visitors from the east magi. For many of his readers these would have been the court advisors and magicians who confronted Daniel in the court of Babylon. They had an extremely negative connotation. Using Magi is not neutral like simply saying king or wise man. We should see them like the Samaritan in Luke’s gospel. It was shocking that people who were not only not Jews but hostile to them would have an insight into the nature and actions of the Messiah.
For centuries people have tried to discover what the Star was and from where did the Magi come. Some of the answers were ingenious but most rather silly and all distracting. A great principle for bible reading is the best interpreter of scripture is scripture. We should always first look at the scriptures for the meaning of a bible passage. In this case we would very definitely be rewarded with the story of Balaam.
It is found in the book of Numbers and is set during the invasion of Canann by the Israelites. Under Moses they had been wandering and fighting for 40 years and had become a fierce and disciplined fighting force. The king of Moab, Balak, realized that he was about to be attacked by Moses and that he could not win by force of arms. He decided however to use different means and sought out Balaam a “seer” from the east to curse the Israelites. This was about 1400 BC and seer, or prophet, meant not someone who could predict or envision the future but someone who could change it. Balak wanted to hire Balaam as a supernatural hit man. Balaam is contacted by the emissaries of Balek and somewhat reluctantly he follows them to Canann. Though he tried to curse the Israelites, the LORD puts words of blessing in his mouth and the Israelites steadily improve their position. His final utterance however goes far beyond just this one battle”
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near—
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; (Nu 24:17).
Matthew was writing to a mixed community. Some were born Jews, others gentiles. He emphasizes that the scribes understood the scriptures well enough to know where the Messiah had to be born but did not even have the desire to go themselves, and indeed, colluded with Herod to kill the child. Matthew was reminding his community that knowing the Hebrew scriptures was essential but only the first step. It had to be completed in worship. Three times in this passage we are told that the end of this quest was to “do him homage.” So, it is with us. The magi tell us all that we have more than in Jesus than the Jewish Messiah we have, at very least, the King of all the world. Our relationship with Jesus must be that of the Magi and begin with Worship.
If we observe here that the best interpreter of scripture is scripture, we also see another principle: every part of the gospels points to the cross. We see this not only with the slaughter of the innocents which will follow but with the choice of gifts brought by the Magi.
Today’s first reading is from Isaiah. It speaks of kings bringing gifts to Jerusalem and ends with
They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD (Is 60:6).
Gold decorates the temple and frankincense is an incense used in worship. Myrrh however is a spice used to embalm a body. A strange gift to give a baby, yet here a necessary one for Jesus a king and the new temple was born to be sacrificed. As with the divinity of Jesus, Mathew wants his readers to know from the beginning that Jesus would be offered for osins.
Most of all, he wants us to know that the LORD is the Master of history. Herod thought himself cunning, but he was confronting a power that controlled the Skys for all and the dreams of some.
Like Balaam centuries before a king who sort to impose his own will over God’s plan discovered that it was impossible. The LORD’S will shall be accomplished. The question for us is if we will be on his side or not.
Today we celebrate the Epiphany. It means showing forth or manifesting something. We Christians use it to express the showing forth who Jesus was. Certainly, we have learned much in today’s story of the Magi, but our tradition is richer. We celebrate two other Epiphanies. Times when Jesus was made known in an especially clear way.
Next Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord when after Jesus is Baptized by John the Father proclaims from the sky that “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.” The following week we read the Wedding feast of Cana in which Jesus will perform his first miracle.
In each case the Glory of God will be revealed but in each case as well it will be with the help of human beings. The Magi, John the Baptist, and Mary his mother will all be part of these epiphanies.
There are still epiphanies to this day, Jesus will always be making himself manifest, present in the world. As members of his body, we are called to be that presence, vessels of unending glory. If we reject this role, we will dwell in the shadows of the world, if we accept it as our calling , we are an Epiphany to the world.