Netflix created an original series called The Crown; recently, Jennifer and I watched the second season. For those who don’t have Netflix, the creators produce an entire season of 10 episodes and then make all available at once. Through an internet connection, a person can watch a show or movie at any time.
We watched the first season earlier this year, and frankly I knew little of British history. The series focuses on the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, and the series began when her Uncle Edward was King. He abdicated the throne so he could marry a divorced American socialite, and his brother Albert became king and then changed his name to George. King George died in 1952 when he was only 56, and his oldest daughter Elizabeth became queen shortly before her 26th birthday. Occasionally we have had to pause the show and go online to read about a specific episode in British history. We have found the show to be fascinating and even gripping.
But consistent throughout both seasons has been conflict. It seems that the royal family, including Elizabeth’s uncle, her parents, her spouse Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, or her sister Margaret, always find themselves at odds with someone. Queen Elizabeth herself recognizes her role with great definition; her identity as Queen and her responsibility as fulfilling the role for the one who wears the crown are never in doubt. Many episodes revolve around the conflicting loyalty among the royalty.
The passage I read from Matthew also includes conflicting loyalty among the royalty. Growing up, I understood that the wise men came to the manger, which didn’t happen. Matthew recorded in verse 11 that the wise men came to a house, not to the manger. Growing up, I sang, like we did today, We Three Kings, and thought that three kings visited Jesus, which didn’t happen … or maybe it did. Matthew never called the visitors kings and never gave a number of visitors. Three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are mentioned, so many have associated the number of gifts with the number of visitors. Since a plural noun is used, we know there were at least two visitors and could have been many more. Matthew used the word magi, which meant wise men; these men may have been ambassadors of distant kingdoms east of Judea; they could have been star-gazers with some education. It was common for foreign kingdoms to send gifts to new kings.
And that was part of the problem: the sitting King of the Jews, meaning Herod, governor of Judea, was still ruling the roost. King Herod’s boss was Caesar Augustus who ruled the entire Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor had placed Herod in Jerusalem, and he had performed admirably. He was quite the politician who had accomplished much to keep his job. He rebuilt the magnificent Temple for the Jews and had many building projects which included aqueducts and the wall around the city. But his greatest flaw was his paranoia. King Herod always thought someone was trying to take his job, so he trusted no one. He killed his father-in-law, several of his ten wives, and two of his sons. Any time that he thought someone was interested in de-throning him, King Herod had them killed. He seemingly was incapable of expressing loyalty to any of his family members; he primarily expressed loyalty to himself. He was ruthlessly paranoid; many today think that he was certifiably mentally ill. His focus was on his status and power; anyone who stood in his way, either real or perceived, was eliminated. Once he died, his territory was divided into three areas to be ruled by his three sons. (https://www.thoughtco.com/herod-the-great-enemy-of-jesus-christ-701064)
Imagine the shock in the palace when King Herod heard that some outsiders, who were carrying treasures, had entered the walled city of Jerusalem and were inquiring the location of the child who had been born to be king of the Jews? If his paranoia prompted him to kill his relatives, there would be no stopping him from killing strangers, especially foreigners. These wise men stood out like Oklahoma Sooners fan at a Georgia Bulldog National Championship Pep Rally. To travel from that distance, the magi had to have brought more than the three gifts to be given to the child king. I imagine that they had a caravan which could have included servants and camels. Entering the walled city of Jerusalem, this group would immediately have drawn attention to themselves. Perhaps a local said, “Obviously, you’re not from around here. What’s your business?”
And they responded, “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? We saw the special star, and we have followed it from the east. We have brought gifts to celebrate the new king.”
The rank-and-file person who lived in Jerusalem was not a fan of King Herod. Sure he had rebuilt the Temple, built aqueducts, built a wall around the city for protection, and numerous other building projects, but he had taxed them unfairly. Most citizens feared King Herod, because they knew him to be an unstable ruler who cared more about keeping his job than he did about serving the citizens. When people learned why these magi had entered the walled-city of Jerusalem, they became frightened, because they didn’t know how King Herod would react.
While King Herod was extremely paranoid, he was also extremely savvy politically; that is why he ruled for 37 years. He summoned the chief priests and scribes to the palace; while Herod had rebuilt the Temple, many religious people still viewed him as a foreigner. He asked these who had studied the Hebrew scriptures if they knew the location where the promised Messiah would be born.
The chief priests and scribes didn’t need Google or any online search engine that many of us use with regularity. They knew immediately that Micah had prophesied that lowly Bethlehem, the ancestral home of the great King David, would be the birthplace of the Messiah.
King Herod must have been relieved and perplexed at the same time: relieved that this Messiah was not within the walls of Jerusalem but also perplexed that he had to find a way to find this child. He conjured a plan in his head and requested a secret meeting with the wise men. King Herod had a secret police, and perhaps they subpoenaed the magi. King Herod asked them exactly when the star had appeared; he wanted to get an idea of how old this child king was. He then told them that the child was to be born in Bethlehem, about six miles from Jerusalem’s walls. King Herod asked these wise men to find out the exact location of the child Messiah and then return with his address so the sitting King of the Jews could also go to pay tribute to the new King of the Jews. They left Jerusalem, and once again, the bright star led the way. They followed it to Bethlehem and found Jesus and Mary in a house.
I have been intrigued that King Herod never doubted that the magi were right. While they may have been ambassadors or emissaries for a foreign government, Kind Herod told them that he wanted to use them as emissaries too, so he could also offer his respects.
I have also been intrigued that the chief priests and scribes did not go to Bethlehem; they knew where the Messiah was to be born. They had immersed themselves in the study and practice of the Law, yet they either didn’t believe these foreigners, who probably weren’t Jewish, or they didn’t want the Messiah to upset what they had going in the Temple business. The chief priests had quite a racket; they got a cut from inflated prices of sacrificial animals sold at Passover and other celebrations. During the last week of his life, Jesus turned over the tables of these moneychangers, because he was so angered by this corruption. Perhaps the chief priests and scribes, the religious royalty of that day, were conflicted in their loyalty. They didn’t want to give up the system that had made them wealthy; they didn’t want to jeopardize their standing. They certainly couldn’t trust the words of someone who looked different and believed differently from them, for they were convinced that they were the only ones who held the truth. They leaned hard into the promise of being God’s chosen people; the only Messiah they wanted was the one who would oust the pagan Roman occupiers and give them greater power in world dominance.
The wise men followed the star to the house in Bethlehem and found the child Jesus; the Greek word for child means “younger child” which is different from the Greek word used for “newborn child.” The difference in our language is akin to using the term baby/babe and child. Jesus was two or three years old when the magi arrived. These wise men bowed to show their respect and then opened their treasure chests in order to present the spectacular gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
That night, they received a warning in a dream not to return to the sitting King of the Jews. You may recall that earlier in Matthew’s gospel, an angel had appeared to Joseph in a dream telling him to take Mary as his wife and to name the child Jesus. Now, God offered a message through a dream to these wise men warning them not to return to King Herod. Had they gone back to the palace with the location of the child King of the Jews, these magi may have met the same fate as Herod’s relatives whom he thought wanted his crown. The wise men decided to head east, but they bypassed Jerusalem. They had worshipped the child, and their loyalty was not to Herod but to Jesus.
Sometime later, King Herod realized that the magi were not coming to the palace; his plot had been foiled which infuriated him. His paranoia peaked which resulted in an edict to kill all children two-years-old and under in and around Bethlehem. What Herod didn’t know was that an angel again had appeared to Joseph in a dream when the magi departed and told Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. The child Messiah was spared the massacre of the innocents.
Conflicting loyalty among royalty runs rampant in Matthew 2. Many of King Herod’s family were killed because of paranoia. King Herod, as well as the chief priests and scribes, remained loyal to their agendas, to their status quo positions by rejecting the child King of the Jews. The magi expressed loyalty to, the child King of the Jews rather than the sitting King of the Jews by not returning to the palace. Joseph, stepfather of the child King of the Jews, sought exile in another land to flee the wrath of the sitting King of the Jews.
On this Epiphany Sunday, how about you? In 2018, how will you express your loyalty to the reigning King of Kings, the Christ, the Messiah? Will you, like Herod, seek to erase any chance of influence that Jesus might make on the world? Will you, like the chief priests and scribes, be content with how things are and not want to make changes that will affect your bottom line? Or will you be like the magi, and go to great efforts to bring lavish gifts to Jesus and then choose Jesus over other powers?
I hope that you do not become conflicted in how you exhibit your loyalty to Christ. Let’s show that we too can be wise. Let’s follow the example of the magi and seek Jesus, worship him, give him lavish gifts, and show our respect. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, in 2018 let’s do what we can with our words and actions to keep Jesus alive in the world today.