The arrival of wise men from the East at Herod’s court with questions about the reported birth of a royal pretender could very easily have caused some consternation. Herod was very well aware of messianic pretenders and may have considered them a real threat to his power. However, in this gospel story, the symbolic message has completely eclipsed whatever historical kernel may have existed.
We know that Matthew, more than any other evangelist, is aware of the hopes of ancient Israel and he is, therefore, constantly alert to any opportunity to show that Jesus has fulfilled those expectations. Thus, for example, Jesus’ lengthy Sermon on the Mount is said to have taken place on a mountain, simply because Matthew wants us to recognize Jesus as a successor to Moses, who also proclaimed divine revelation from a mountain top.
In the story of the Magi, Matthew wants us to recognize in Jesus the new Solomon, whose reputation for wisdom was legendary. He too received a visitor from the East, the Queen of Sheba, who was said to have been “breathless” as she marveled at his wisdom and wealth (1 Kings 10:1-13).
This Epiphany story is, therefore, a celebration of the wisdom represented by Jesus–in his person and in his message. It is an unpretentious wisdom, because it is embodied in a tiny child, but it is in fact the only wisdom that will ultimately survive.
The Magi represent secular wisdom, which is validated by success through a clever use of power. In this case, physical power is for controlling others, intelligence is for out-witting them, and wealth or political power is for amassing ever more wealth and influence. This wisdom is the centerpiece of today’s dominant secular culture. It is not always a bad thing, but neither should it be dominant.
Jesus offers a radically different kind of wisdom, which declares that all forms of power must be in the service of love and that true success should be measured in terms of who has been liberated by unselfish love from the bondage of fear, guilt, low self-esteem and the like. Our real power is our freedom, and it is very tempting to use that freedom to dominate and control others. Jesus tells us that we should risk using freedom as he did–for loving and liberating and trusting and forgiving.
In fact, I have often wondered whether the first, and perhaps the only, question asked of us at the final judgment will simply be, “Did you let my people go?” The powerful and oppressive Pharaoh was an exemplar of secular wisdom, while the God of Exodus and Jesus represent the far superior and enduring wisdom of love and liberation. We need to ask ourselves whether the net result of our actions and attitudes is to make others stronger and happier and more confident. The Wise Men offer gifts to Jesus because they recognize that the humble wisdom of Jesus eclipses all forms of merely human wisdom.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.