Matthew is not a writer of Mills and Boon romantic stories. Matthew is a grim realist. He tells it as it is and leaves the bitter taste in the mouths of those who consume his words. He does not sugar coat the outcome of the birth of Jesus and leaves us aware of the confrontation imminent and eternal.
What is this confrontation?
The confrontation over sovereignty – just who is sovereign and has the power of life and death of all who live in this created world? The plot of the Matthews ‘novel’ about Jesus is made clear, right here at the beginning of his Gospel – the battle between those who deem themselves rulers of the state and God who is deemed sovereign over all God created. Jesus, as the Christ becomes the protagonist, beset by those who wish to usurp his reign and to maintain the violence and oppression of the state.
In this chapter of the novel Matthew promotes Herod as the hero of the state and the states power over all it surveys, fragile and insecure though it may be. Herod has a history of dealing brutally with any pretenders to his throne and will, as we know; deal brutally in the future with such as John the Baptist. Any threat to his position is deemed a threat against the state and thus must be addressed in the most efficient of ways. The state will remain the only source of power and control.
Into this story comes the wise men, how many we don’t actually know but because there are three gifts tradition has presumed there were three. They have, as is the wont of those who fathom deep truths in nature and learning, discerned the birth of Jesus according to the ways of astrology. They follow the stars calculation, perhaps not a physical star, and arrive in the kingdom of Herod looking for the King of the Jews. They are not that wise as is often the case with experts. They had not researched the nature of this King nor his aversion to competition and foolishly announce their intentions.
Finding themselves at the home of Mary and Joseph and Jesus they realise their calculations are correct and provide three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. While many have discerned the meaning of these gifts we will never know exactly what they meant for those who brought them or those who received them but each had a practical purpose and one could suggest it was these practical purposes that mattered most. It was perhaps the first baby shower – frankincense and myrrh had been used for medicinal and healing purposes for centuries and gold as a currency and means to obtaining the necessities of life.
Perhaps the gifts they bought with them were more about valuing the mother and her child and not about placing theological labels on him. Why would these men from another country and its belief system wish to do that? They had their own worldview. This was a research project they had undertaken to test an hypothesis and they came with gifts suitable for a young family and their first child.
Whatever their meaning Mary accepted and as was her way ponder their meaning, unaware that they may very well serve to be useful in a journey her little family would make fleeing into exile. Was the gold used to pay people smugglers, was the gifts of healing oils used to massage and treat sore bodies on an arduous journey. Would she have some of those oils with her at his death?
After delivering their gifts the wise men wise up and realise that Herod was not to be trusted and disappear into the wilderness, finding another path home. I suspect Herod didn’t really need them to return. The state always knows where you are and there may have been helpful state officials on hand monitoring where they went and whom they saw. In a little time we know he did know and he set about a program of extermination to rid himself of the problem.
In some of the interpretations of the meaning of the gifts it is made clear that the issue Jesus will have to address by both his life and his death is the one of sovereignty – who has the power of life and death:
- Gold: A gift for royalty, in other words Jesus was of a Royal line.
- Frankincense: An expensive incense that was used in worship and signifies Jesus’ divinity.
- Myrrh: An expensive oil used for perfume and as an anointing oil for the dead. Thus, myrrh foreshadows Jesus’ death and is a reminder of his mortality.
This interpretation lays out the plot of Jesus’ life and the apparent supremacy of the state – Jesus is born, Jesus lives and Jesus is crucified by the state for being a political rabble rouser and a royal pretender. It appears that the state is indeed sovereign.
Yet the myth of Jesus’ life, the protagonist in Matthew’s novel, remains central to the Western canon and the Western way of life. While his life may have been extinguished the power of his story and the sovereignty of the Godhead remains. Regardless of how we might feel about hot cross buns in January, society still remembers his birth and death, celebrating its enduring presence in the life of the state.
That which sought to gain sovereignty by the slaughter of little boys now celebrates its sovereignty by selling them toys and by becoming heroes of the faith by choosing to fight for religious freedom; all the while whittling away at Herod’s project – the destruction of any opposition to their sovereignty.
Those who feared Jesus and sought his death have disappeared into oblivion while Jesus has remained. Those we remember we do not remember for themselves and their achievements but because of they played in confirming the sovereignty of God and the Christ, Jesus.
The power of the state to force people to become refugees and to refuse them safety does not prevent the consequences of such actions being felt by the state itself. Jesus, the refugee, returned and set about asserting his sovereignty over his land and his people; God will not be denied. God is sovereign and those whom he favours, the powerless and the marginalised, will be returned to their rightful place and those who seek to keep the status quo will be brought down.
Where does that leave us, people of relative privilege and a sense of sovereignty over our own lives in a world where this is in fact a minority experience? Where does that leave us who live in this country by dint of the violence of the state that disinherited the original custodians of this land and forced them into exile in their own country? Where does that leave us who seek safety from the violence of others and allow the state to place people in indefinite detention for simply wanting to escape state violence elsewhere?
The question of Jesus life remains – who is sovereign in our lives – the state whose mantra is to keep us safe or God, whose sovereign love and compassion will endure all the State can muster. Look at the life of Jesus and make your choice.