NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 5: 13-16
FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus said to his disciples:
"You are the salt of the earth.
But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?
It is no longer good for anything
but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world.
A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
it is set on a lampstand,
where it gives light to all in the house.
Just so, your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father."
It is helpful to remember that next Sunday’s text follows the beatitudes immediately, specifically the statement that those will be blessed for the persecution they suffer in their fidelity to the ethic of the kingdom of God. So, the “salt of the earth” phrase in the first verse is not an isolated fragment of pithy exhortation. It is more like “you know, there are pains and punishments to embracing the kingdom of God. You can lose your family, your business, your holdings; you can be hailed to court, tortured, and even put to death for the sake of the Kingdom. But even with that great risk, “you are [must be] the salt of the earth.” On a lighter note, we can cite the wisdom of Mark Twain, “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”
Sunday’s text is a continuation of Jesus’ private instruction to his intimate followers. It is a series of metaphors of distinction, as indeed the followers of Jesus do stand out to the world. R.T. France, our house commentator (see home page), notes that the second person pronoun “you” in this text is consistently plural, not simply because there is more than one Apostle, but to convey a “corporate witness” of goodness. (p. 171) Given that this Gospel was written a half-century or more after the life of Jesus, it would be hard to imagine that Matthew did not have his own “corporation” in mind, his church. Certainly, Catholicism embraced this interpretation for many centuries from ancient times, going as far as to call his work “the Gospel of the church.”
France calls special attention to the sentence “A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.” The collective nature of the kingdom of God is particularly highlighted here; France uses the phrase “alternative society.” With some humor, he elaborates that “Modern Western individualism is such that we can easily think of the light of the world as a variety of little candles shining, ‘you in your small corner, and I in mine,’ but it is the collective light of the whole community which draws the attention of the watching world.” [I do not know if France attended the 1969 Woodstock Festival where singer Melanie called upon 600,000 people to hold up candles or bic lighters in a driving rainstorm; at least she knew her St. Matthew.]
The various metaphors in Sunday’s Gospel are meaningful only to the measure of their utility. Salt is useful and distinctive to the degree that it remains salty. Once it goes bad it is useless. An abandoned city on a hill with no inhabitants to build fires has no visual impact. Similarly, a lighted lamp under a bushel basket is useless—though possibly a little dangerous. France explains that the word “tasteless” in reference to the salt also means “foolish,” a double entendre that gets lost in the translation. The parallel throughout the text is usefulness vs. foolishness (as in hiding the lamp) and clearly carries connotations of personal judgments about conduct.
There are two levels of interpretation to consider here: the first, what Jesus himself intended as understood by Matthew; the second, what Matthew understood as the implications of this teachings for his church community years later. It is very hard to say if Jesus in his lifetime thought “corporately.” If he did, he probably envisioned a New Israel with the twelve as the fathers of the restored people. All the Gospels agree that Jesus died as a practicing Jew. My thought here is that early in his ministry, so closely associated with John the Baptist and conversion through baptism, Jesus envisioned his early followers as making their lights shine by unexpected good conduct. St. Luke, who gives us perhaps the best portrait of the Baptist, describes John’s (and probably Jesus’ early preaching as well) as a study of contrasts. The Roman soldier is to quit “shakedowns” and be satisfied with his pay. The tax collector must stop exorbitant charges. An honest tax collector? An oxymoron! This was news. Strong salt and bright light in the circles of the Baptist and Jesus.
Given the fact that so many years of church life passed between the events as narrated and the audience that heard or read them, Church scholars today labor to understand how Matthew would have applied Sunday’s text to the church in his region around 80 A.D. By this time, Christianity had a young but recognizable corporate culture of local churches connected by emerging leaders and the letters and other literature that one day would be known as the New Testament. Most of all, the churches came together for common purpose, to “break bread” or participate in the sacred meal of the memorialized. Sunday’s Gospel opens the door to a thoughtful blueprint of what the corporate city on the hill must look like.
According to the Jerome Biblical Commentary (pp. 632ff) the local church in Matthew’s day had been a strongly Jewish/Christian assembly which was now dividing along traditional lines. Jewish authorities began expelling its members who embraced Christianity in a kind of dual-identity. Defections from Christianity were becoming common, and Matthew hastened to develop the argument that Jesus was indeed the New Moses—with the New Law—and thus there was no need to abandon Christians or to return to a safer haven, religiously speaking.
Matthew, then, will speak with a much more corporate tongue. In fact, it may have been the fracturing of the assembly that led him to decry salt without flavor, or lamps with no lights. He correctly perceived that the warring Christian-Jewish segments had lost distinctiveness and resembled every other early institution divided by doctrine, philosophy, or personality. The JBC comments that Matthew’s Gospel will offer many moral teachings to reestablish the distinctive qualities of the new kingdom, including directives regarding authority and conflict resolution in Chapter 16.
Sunday’s Gospel sets the table for the common life of faith and charity that makes the Church salty, and not foolish.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 5: 1-12a
FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [A]
USCCB link to all three readings
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain,
and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.
He began to teach them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward will be great in heaven."
The Beatitudes cited in next Sunday’s Gospel open the three-chapter segment known as the Sermon on the Mount. Commentator R.T. France (see home page) is quick to point out, though, that the “sermon” at this juncture of Jesus’ ministry was not intended for mankind, but rather, as the intimate instruction of the Apostles who have answered Jesus’ call to enter the Kingdom. Now they (and we) will find out precisely what the Kingdom of God stands for. France prefers the title “The Discourse on Discipleship” for Chapters 5-7.
A cautionary note is called for in addressing Sunday’s texts. Catechists—myself included—have been very quick to call the beatitudes, and the three explanatory chapters that follow, a new moral code. One often hears that the Beatitudes are the new Ten Commandments, with Jesus as the new Moses. However, France would have no argument with Hans Kung’s On Being a Christian (1976) in which Kung describes Christianity as the only religion in the world that calls us to become like God. The adjective “blessed” in this reading aligns with God as revealed in Jesus: poor in spirit, mourning for suffering, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, clean of heart, a maker of peace, persecuted and reviled for goodness’ sake.
The Beatitudes reflect the state of the saints, those who have walked in the footsteps of Jesus. The culmination of their journey is union with God, or as Matthew puts it, “your reward in heaven will be great.” It would be wrong, then, to claim at any point in one’s life that one has accomplished or finished the requirement of a beatitude. Can one ever say, “I’ve made enough peace” or “I am done mourning for the suffering of the world” or “I have been merciful enough?” The beatitudes have something of the open-ended quality pf a psychological projective test: there are always more ways to concretely live the law of Christ; the Christian qualities of sensitivity and imagination are always operative. For this reason, to look at the beatitudes as merely moral guidelines or codes is to miss the mark.
The term “poor in Spirit” in the first beatitude is an Old Testament term of praise. It refers to those who, despite poverty and destitution, not only maintain faith in God but also engage in eschatological or future hope and trust, that God will be their deliverer whatever the odds of the present moment.
As France notes, it is illogical to say that those who mourn are happy. The intent of the beatitude is the statement that those who presently mourn will eventually be comforted. This beatitude is closely related to the first; those who are presently mourning are expressing grief over their current predicament of poverty and powerlessness. When coupled with the hope of the previous paragraph, their tears will be washed away.
The term “meek” includes the poor listed above, but it also refers to those whose attitude is not arrogant or oppressive. They stand in silent contrast to those who seek power and riches, and God will confound the world by establishing the meek as the master of the new Kingdom.
Those hungering for righteousness are seekers of good conduct in their own lives. They are not moral scolds calling for God to punish their evil neighbors, as is sometimes the interpretation of the text. The “merciful” of the beatitudes carry a generous and unjudgmental attitude toward the world at large. They are assured that God’s treatment of them will be marked by this same kind of forgiving temperament.
“Peacemaking” is an active behavior, far more than simply maintaining a calm demeanor. This beatitude includes making peace with one’s own enemies and bringing together those who are estranged from one another. I am reminded of the old saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall catch hell from all sides.”
The last lines of Sunday’s reading are directed to the Apostles, as “blessed are you….” The pronoun change is critical, for it marks the end of the generalized description of the Kingdom of God and begins the pointed instruction to those who would follow Jesus through his own ministry. For the next three chapters, Jesus will elaborate on the sweeping descriptions of the beatitudes in terms of how his followers will adopt a moral plan of action. It may be helpful to add that the next sentence following Sunday’s text is “You are the salt of the earth.” France refers to the following chapters as the fulfillment of the Law.
I might recommend that Chapters 5 through 7 be read together as a whole. They represent the full scope of Jesus’ mind on the Christian life while bringing the teachings of the Law and the prophets into fulfillment. The Lectionary of the Mass will draw from this section for through the Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
NEXT SUNDAY’S READING: MATTHEW 4: 12-23
THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB Link to all three readings
When Jesus heard that John had been arrested,
he withdrew to Galilee.
He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea,
in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali,
that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet
might be fulfilled:
Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles,
the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light,
on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death
light has arisen.
From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say,
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers,
Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew,
casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen.
He said to them,
"Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men."
At once they left their nets and followed him.
He walked along from there and saw two other brothers,
James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John.
They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets.
He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father
and followed him.
He went around all of Galilee,
teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom,
and curing every disease and illness among the people.
Some explanation is called for in the Lectionary’s selection of this Gospel text. Last Sunday’s text from John’s Gospel focused upon the Baptism of Jesus. The third chapter of Matthew was not included in the Sunday lectionary of Year A because it also recounts the Baptism of Jesus. This Sunday we return to St. Matthew’s narrative with Chapter 4. However, all four Gospels agree that after the baptism of Jesus he went into the desert where he was tempted. In Matthew, the temptation narrative is found in 4: 1-11, directly after his baptism, and for many centuries the Church has assigned the temptation of Christ text to the First Sunday of Lent. In 2017 the Matthean temptation narrative will be observed on March 4-5.
Thus, the Sunday narrative picks up at Matthew 4:12, after a string of major events: the Baptism of Jesus, the Temptation of Jesus, and as Matthew reports here, the arrest of John the Baptist. R.T. France comments that Herod Antipas viewed John the Baptist’s ministry as one with considerable populist political overtones, and it would not have been safe for one so closely identified with John to remain highly visible, particularly around his home town Nazareth. The word “withdrew” in v. 12 translates from the Greek “escaped” or “got away safely.” (France, p. 140)
Jesus would return to Nazareth only rarely for the rest of his life; his new “territory” would be Galilee, and his base city would be Capernaum, a thriving seaport with a Roman administration center and a population of about 10,000. The population was primarily Jewish; Gentiles lived in Tiberius, further down the shoreline. While Jesus would achieve a greater measure of safety here, Matthew’s text emphasizes two other points of significance in the move. The first is harmony with the text of Isaiah 8:23-9:6. Matthew provides only the first two lines of the prophesy in his Gospel text, but it is enough to make his point that the gloom of desolation in Galilee would be replaced by the birth of a child who would be called “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.”
In truth, the literary arrangement of Matthew leads the reader to understand that “the great light” of which Isaiah speaks is Jesus. For after the prophesy Matthew continues, “From that time on, Jesus began to preach….” Of the four Gospels, Matthew is by far the most emphatic in his theology that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish Scripture. There will be many occasions in the weeks ahead where the phrases “according to the Scriptures” or “that Scripture may be fulfilled” or “as is written” will appear immediately before or after a word or deed from Jesus.
With this in mind, the second critical intent of Matthew is the introduction of the “the public ministry” of Jesus. All the Gospels “introduce” the public Jesus in some fashion; for example, Mark writes “after John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’” The language of Jesus In Mark is very similar to this Sunday’s, but Matthew, unlike Mark, provides the Isaiah-Galilee setting. It is by comparing the Gospels (an analysis known as “redaction criticism”) that it is possible to determine the specific theological intent of each evangelist. Matthew highlights Galilee at the beginning of the public ministry so that he can connect Jesus’ ministry with the work of the infant Church at the end of the Gospel. In Matthew 28 Jesus orders the eleven disciples to a mountaintop in Galilee, where he gives the “great commissioning” to preach and baptize universally till the end of time.
France adds an insightful observation here, that with the beginning of the public ministry, Jesus will no longer minister alone but with what he calls “the messianic community” of those who, like Jesus, will give up everything and engage in the ministry of “fishing for men.” The recruiting of the twelve in Matthew’s Gospel is an elongated process, but here at the beginning the disciples Simon (Peter), Andrew, James and John are mentioned immediately as four who would be with him from the beginning. The idea of an “inner core” will be a feature of this Gospel, most notably when Jesus designates Peter as the rock of his new kingdom. It is little wonder that for much of the Church’s history the Gospel of Matthew was called “the Gospel of the Church.”
NEXT SUNDAY’S READING: JOHN 1: 29-34
SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK to all three readings here
John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said,
"Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
He is the one of whom I said,
'A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me
because he existed before me.'
I did not know him,
but the reason why I came baptizing with water
was that he might be made known to Israel."
John testified further, saying,
"I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven
and remain upon him.
I did not know him,
but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me,
'On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain,
he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.'
Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God."
We have a calendar peculiarity this year in that the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is not celebrated on a Sunday in 2017. I can’t help but think that this is a loss to the Catholic community in the United States. There is an explanation: general Church law places the feast of the Baptism on the first Sunday after January 6, the international date of the Epiphany. In 2017 that would have been January 8. However, national conferences of bishops, such as our USCCB, have the right to transfer the Epiphany to the Sunday between January 2 and January 8, no doubt for better observance and attendance. (The same principle hold true for Ascension “Thursday,’ which is observed on a Sunday in much of the U.S., technically the Seventh Sunday of Easter.) In 2017 the U.S. regulations would have put the Epiphany and the Baptism on the same day. In such cases the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is transferred to the next day, this year January 9, and our Cycle A Evangelist Matthew’s account was read on this Monday past.
Thus, most us this year will miss Matthew’s account of the Baptism, which is quite intriguing, though I have a link to Matthew’s text here. In Matthew’s narrative, John the Baptist is quite disconcerted that Jesus approaches him for baptism, and makes a case that their roles should be reversed. Jesus replies that “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness,” and then he allowed John to proceed. Whatever Jesus’ intention for embracing John’s baptism, there is unanimity among the four evangelists that the Jordan event was a seminal moment in the life of Jesus, marking not only the beginning of his public ministry and the bestowal of the Spirit and the Father’s favor, but perhaps a change in Jesus’ self-understanding in his identity and mission. For these reasons the baptismal texts have been core to the study of Christology, from Apostolic times to the present day.
What we have on Sunday is John the Baptist’s recollection of Jesus’ baptism as the text for the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, as written by John the Evangelist. (There is no “First Sunday in Ordinary Time” as the Christmas Season ends with the Feast of the Baptism and Ordinary Time begins this morning—Tuesday—in the Liturgy of the Hours.) The first thing to bear in mind is the mindset of the Evangelist John. As the last of the written Gospels, perhaps as late as 100 A.D., John reflects several generations of Church reflection upon the personal nature of Jesus. During that time the perception of Jesus shifted from that of an eschatological prophet returning shortly for judgment and restoration, to a human and divine being who has brought the presence of God into the here-and-now.
The Gospel of St. John was also written at a time when egregious errors about Jesus began to spread—heresies, we might say today. The two most common errors are quite understandable. The first is that Jesus was a great man but not divine. The second is the reverse: that Jesus was a divine being whose humanity was “puppet-like.” The Church would need three more centuries to formulate the truth of the Incarnation into the Creed we proclaim today, but in reading John you can see many instances of his addressing both extremes at various times.
In the above reading, John the Evangelist demonstrates the balance that makes his Gospel so critical to the Church. In Sunday’s text, John the Baptist is the first in the narrative to announce the unique nature of Jesus. Prior to this text in Chapter 1 the Baptist has already been questioned by Jewish leaders about the nature of his own mission. The Baptist is quite clear then that his mission is subservient to the coming one “the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to loosen.” Our text begins with the first public appearance of Jesus. The Baptist identifies him as (1) the Lamb of God, and (2) the one who will take away the sins of the world. There is some scholarship that holds the “lamb” symbolism as a creature of destruction of sin, much to be feared. The predominant scholarship finds connection with the prophesies of Isaiah Chapters 52 and 53, the texts read at the Church’s Good Friday ritual, which speaks of one who takes the sins of the world upon his shoulders and goes to his slaughter silently like a lamb.
The Baptist continues to give testimony, proclaiming that not only is Jesus superior to him, but that Jesus existed before him, a strong reference to preexistence, as in “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) John has thus balanced the broken and crushed lamb of the previous sentence with the preexistent divine Son of God in the next sentence. The Baptist’s statement that his mission involved making known the work of Jesus to Israel is very consistent with the other Gospels. Later in John’s Gospel it will become clear that Jesus’ mission is hardly exclusive to Israel. In Chapter 4, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well that the day is coming when all will worship in spirit and truth. Again, one can see the continuing development of Christology in the Gospels.
John does not describe the act of Jesus’ baptism. His emphasis is upon the Baptist’s recollection and interpretation, and it tells us as much about the Baptist as it does about Jesus. The Baptist states that he himself saw the Spirit of God (the prophetic spirit quenched for several centuries) come upon Jesus and remain with him. The term “remain” is a powerful one in John’s Gospel. Later, Jesus would pray that his disciples would remain in his love. The Baptist goes on to say that the Spirit would “remain” with Jesus, and that Jesus himself would continue to baptize with the Holy Spirit. Finally, the Baptist himself testifies that he himself has come to know that Jesus is the Son of God.
Something we can say with certainty is that the Baptist described in John’s Gospel is rather different from the Baptist of the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). If we recall the Advent season of readings, the accounts of Matthew and Luke describe the Baptist in a much more tentative light—as when he sends two of his disciples from Herod’s prison to inquire of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to look for someone else?” There are hints in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles that a sizeable number of the Baptist’s followers remained faithful to him, particularly after his martyr’s death under Herod. It may be that the evangelist John was attempting to portray the Baptist in an optimum light here vis-à-vis the mission of Jesus.
The best understanding of Sunday’s Gospel is its “Christology” or description of Jesus as truly God and truly man. The evangelist John has the Baptist making acclamations far beyond what he could possibly have known. But these acclamations make excellent sense coming from the lips of believers in the evangelist’s time of several generations after the public ministry of Jesus. This is St. John’s statement of “look how far we have come in our understanding of Jesus of Nazareth since the days of the Baptist.” Moreover, John has the opportunity to reinforce one of the primary messages of his writing: remain in love of one another, as God remains in his Son.”
The year-long narrative of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Cycle A) begins on January 22 with Chapter 4 and extends for the entire liturgical year
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 2: 1-12
THE FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY
USCCB link to all three readings
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
"Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage."
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel."
Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star's appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
"Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage."
After their audience with the king they set out.
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.
One of the differences between the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke is the identification of the home of Joseph and Mary. It is hard to underestimate the importance of the prophesy of Micah 5 in Jesus’ day, that from Bethlehem would come the future leader of Israel. Matthew bases the domestic roots of the Holy Family in Bethlehem; there is nothing in his Gospel to suggest that all his Christmas narrative—up to and including Sunday’s reading—did not happen in Bethlehem. Matthew opens Chapter 2 with an affirmation that Jesus was indeed born in the city predicted by Micah. There is some irony in the text; the only person in Jerusalem ignorant of the prophesy in the narrative is the sitting King Herod.
Matthew, in his effort to remain true to Micah’s prophesy, must then deal with the fact that in his adult life Jesus was known as “the Nazorean,” and the evangelist is compelled at the end of Chapter 2, beyond our assigned text, to explain that Joseph did not return the family to Bethlehem, but rather to Nazareth to keep a low profile under the new king Archelaus, Herod’s son. Thus, one can honestly say that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were political refugees in the sense we understand the term today.
R.T. France explains that this entire narrative at hand has the mark of royalty. (p. 61) The child Jesus is born in the city where the new King David is expected to arrive. This royal theme is continued when foreign dignitaries arrive upon the scene in Bethlehem, bearing gifts strikingly like those borne by the Queen of Sheba during her visit to King Solomon a millennium earlier. Moreover, the heavy-handed presence of King Herod in the narrative—he who would lie to the Magi and then commit infanticide in his lust to remain in power—sets the important literary contrast of “bad king” in contrast to the kind of king that Jesus would become. In Matthew 27 Pilate and the soldiers use the title “King of the Jews” as Jesus embraces his suffering and death without complaint.
The term “Magi” covers a great deal of territory in the complex world of religion, astrology, dream interpretation, and astronomy of the Eastern world of Jesus’ day. Magi often served the courts of kings, so the least that can be said is that as a rule such men were respected in Persian courts, for example, for wisdom and religious insight. France points out that the first appearance or epiphany of Jesus in Matthew’s narrative is to foreign non-Jews, not the chosen people of Israel that one might have expected. The vision of Matthew’s entire Gospel is the fulfillment of the entire Israelite promise in a new Son of David who will draw all peoples of the world to the mountain of the new and eternal Jerusalem. Isaiah 60, the first reading of Sunday’s Mass, predates Matthew by centuries but it does embody much of Matthew’s picture of the future. So, it is not surprising that in his introductory chapters Matthew depicts the homage of noble pagans from afar bearing gifts.
There is a good amount of detail here within the narrative, but we must proceed with the caveat that historically speaking none of the events in Sunday’s Gospel have ever been independently verified, not even Herod’s slaughter of infants later in the chapter. It is more probable that Matthew has given us a theologically-driven sermon through the medium of a compelling drama. Matthew wrote his Gospel around 80 A.D., a generation after St. Paul’s works on the cosmic dimensions of the saving Christ. In Paul’s thinking, all of creation has been redeemed, not just the human souls. So again, it is not surprising that a cosmic event—a brilliant star presumably in the western sky—compelled some of the best minds in the East to undertake a presumably strenuous journey.
France explains that in the Middle East an unexplained star (possibly a comet or nova) was believed to herald the birth of a new king. (Hence the star over your stable set at home, mixing Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives.) From their vantage point the Magi probably concluded that a new king had been born in Palestine, and the most logical motive of their trip was to pay tribute to the royal family. It is interesting that in the court of Herod in Jerusalem, where one ought to have found such a child, the Magi still inquire over his whereabouts. There is a hint of deeper perception by these Eastern visitors, particularly when the sitting king seems to know nothing about this royal birth and shows inordinate interest in when the star appeared (or when the new king was born). It is safe to assume that the Magi’s curiosities and suspicions were both aroused in Jerusalem.
We are indebted to the Jewish historian Josephus for a specific peculiarity of Herod: he enjoyed “cloak-and-dagger” operations and here he attempts to engage his visitors in such an operation. (“When you have found him, bring me word….”) The Magi nonetheless continue their quest to Bethlehem; France provides a touching description of the discovery: “It seems, then, that the star’s movement gave them the final supernatural direction they needed to the specific house where the child was.” (p. 74) Clearly, we are progressing to the climax of the story, when those beyond the pale of the Israelite world come forward to pay homage to the King of the Jews. Foreign men of dignity prostrate themselves on the ground in an average home in a tiny town; they offer gifts of gold (ultimate value), frankincense (a very expensive perfume/incense burned in religious festivals), and myrrh (a luxurious cosmetic fragrance).
These are, in fact, gifts for a king, and in his narrative Matthew has paired the eschatological future described in Isaiah 60 (the first reading) with the reality of the savior and king who is the living climax of history. Matthew goes on to say that the Magi returned home having no contact with Herod. It is unfortunate that the entire Chapter 2 (linked here) is not proclaimed at Mass, for the narrative describes the peril of Jesus at the hands of Herod and the bitter bloodbath that follows. The American Biblical Scholar Father Raymond Brown reminded us in his writings that the Christmas narratives are in truth adult sermons about the nexus between suffering and redemption.