Sunday, January 04, 2009

Contrasts of Faith: those who know vs. those who should know

Isaiah 60:1-6 Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 Ephesians 3:1-12 Matthew 2:1-12

Reading a commentary the other day on Matthew’s story about the wise men, it never occurred to me how much we’ve inserted into this text over time. For instance, the wise men became “kings”, a definitive number of “kings” was assigned (three), and then these kings were eventually given names and assigned to the countries they supposedly ruled over. These items are distinctly lacking in Matthew’s narrative even if they can be inferred from other texts and prophecies, but I’m willing to bet there are many Christians who would defend these notions to their dying breath! That these items are perhaps insignificant is not nearly as important to us as are our cultural traditions, even if we come by them honestly. Whether we actually enhance the story with our embellishments, however, is a matter of perspective. And Faith.

From this narrative comes also a natural tendency to move right into Herod’s order of execution in his quest to rid himself of the perceived threat which comes to him and his status at the news of this newborn “King of the Jews”. Fair enough since it is still part of the continuing narrative. After all, Herod may never have become aware of Messiah had it not been for the wise men asking for directions, at least not so soon. Then the wise men were warned in a dream to avoid Herod, so they left the country by an alternate route. Once Herod became aware that he had been deceived, he panicked. Since he now could not know the location of only One, he ordered instead the destruction of many.

We Christians are big on symbolism. We see a text in Scripture and simply assume there has to be some deep, underlying meaning to it far beyond what the mere words point out. For instance, some try to explain the star and its significance to the story, but there is no real way of knowing whether the wise men saw a natural phenomenon or a supernatural one except by faith. What is also missing is how they came to know exactly what they were searching for since the text states that “we observed His star”. How did they come to know that this star was of divine significance? If these were truly Gentiles, as scholars have assigned them, they had no religious background and certainly no way to know of this newborn “King of the Jews”, this promised Messiah. Yet they not only came but also thought enough of what they expected to find to bring gifts.

Naturally faith is going to play a significant role in our understanding and acceptance of the story, but there is much more going on than what each gift, the star, or the identification or the number of wise men may or may not represent. What we are being shown, maybe even without trying to read too deeply into the text, is acceptance of the Messiah by Gentile, if unidentified, strangers and rejection by a sufficiently Jewish ruler (Herod); sufficient in that, while Herod may not have been purely Jewish, he is enough so that Messiah is not completely foreign to him even as he is also sufficiently hostile to such an arrival that he would feel compelled to destroy this “King of the Jews” which he may have perceived only as purely political and not theological. Even if political, there is still a constrast which exists on a certain level, a contrast which exists even today.

Douglas Hare, a theology professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, summarizes this contrast between acceptance by strangers and rejection by Herod in this way: “For us, the contrast can serve to symbolize the internal contrast between that part of the inner self which willingly and joyfully accepts the Lordship of Christ our King and that darker side of the self which firmly and persistently rejects His right to rule.”

It may not be entirely fair to allow Herod to represent “believers” or even the Jews since Herod’s faith or even sense of religion seems highly questionable. However, it must be noted that Herod thought enough of this newborn “King” to order Him destroyed, no matter the cost. Sort of brings to mind James’ reminder that “even the demons believe … and tremble …” like Herod is doing at the notion that his way of life is perhaps being threatened. But I suppose the contrast – or comparison – between Herod and contemporary Christians more acurately defines either our ambivalence … or our outright hostility to Christ and His Holy Church.

Think about it. Knowledge of the Lord is all well and good as long as we’re being “saved” or as long as we are getting what we think we want or need - but demand of us to forgive someone who has done us wrong … well, that is not being very reasonable, is it? Pray for our enemies? Bless those who persecute us? Forgive as we have been forgiven? Not very reasonable if there is still a score to settle. Turn the other cheek?? Outrageous! Not a very realistic ideal, is it?

But there it is. I would suggest that this internal conflict is one that has been going on within us almost since birth when our Christian parents warned us not to allow others to “run over” us, or when they taught us that when someone hits us, we are to hit them back. Few parents can escape this guilt because we cannot bear the thought that our children are defenseless in a very cruel world, a world in which we cannot always be there to protect and defend. And it gets worse as we get older because the conflicts become somewhat more sophisticated, and the consequences more dire. This world will eat us alive if we do not toughen up, right?

If such conflict exists within us and we are consciously aware of these conflicts, it is a blessing because we still seem to know right from wrong. We know that the Lord blesses those who bless, and we should have sufficient faith to know that when the time is right, the Lord will answer for all those wrongs that have been heaped upon us.

We know – or should know - that we are the voices, the shepherds; not the victims. We are heirs to the Heavenly Throne as co-heirs with Christ. And this world is not our home.

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