Allies, Lies, Spies and Murder


  • Matthew 2:1-12
  • Isaiah 60:1-6
  • Ephesians 3:1-12

Allies, lies, spies and murder. These are the means by which Herod tries to secure his kingship after he hears of the birth of another King of the Jews. ‘Another’ because of course Herod has already been named ‘King of the Jews’ by the Roman Empire.  And in the manner of empire, Herod uses any means to squash the power of others and to safeguard and increase his own. So the question before us in the story of Epiphany, the visit of the Magi to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, is, what does Jesus, ‘born King of the Jews’ (2:2) have to offer that is different from the offerings of Herod’s reign.

Matthew is sometimes called the most Jewish of the gospels – and indeed the intended audience was Jewish and it does highlight the Jewish heritage of Jesus, make frequently reference to prophecy and Jewish scripture and otherwise make it’s Jewish nature prominent.  But it is in the second chapter of the Jewish Gospel, that magi from the east are introduce.  These astrologers from Persia or Armenia or some vague ‘east’ of Judea learn, perhaps interpreting the same prophets that Jews in Judea read, that a king has been born in Judea.  So they pack up the gifts that will befit a king and the travel to that land.

(As an aside: there is no mention in the gospel of the number three, that these men are kings, or that they came on camels.  These are all assumptions made based on other prophets texts in scripture or are purely fabrication from other traditions.)

The astrologers arrive in Jerusalem.  Of course Jerusalem; it is the capital of Judea. Jerusalem because these men may have read the same text in Isaiah about nations streaming to Jerusalem and kings and camels and gifts. Jerusalem because that is where the royal house has its seat. It is the natural place for emissaries of state to visit to pay homage at the birth of royalty. Instead of a baby prince in the royal court, they find a paranoid and jealous king Herod who immediately upon hearing the news negotiates to place allies around him – both in those already in his employ and in the wise men themselves.

The politically powerful need allies to be powerful.  Allies provide protection and assurance of maintained power.  Creating allies can also take careful negotiation.  What of his power can the king offer in return for safety and allegiance?  Those who are allies protect each others interests at the expense of those who are not allies; ‘us’ and ‘them’ is writ large.  At both a personal and political scale this mentality is totally part of our world view.  Even in a more negotiation friendly administration such as we are now, a quick ‘google’ of ‘Obama’ and ‘allies’ will bring up headlines like, ‘President Obama’s allies try to shield him from a potential climate catastrophe,” Obama Allies Preparing To Launch TV Ad Blitz Targeting GOP Senators,” “Obama briefs allies on Afghan strategy.”  Or they are about allies breaking with the administration or the president.  On a personal level, we naturally want to be with people who think along the same lines and who agree with us, who share our taste, who’ve got our backs.  Allies increase invulnerability.

Herod’s allies, the chief priest and the scribes of the people in Matthew 2, do their best to protect their king.  They suggest that although the magi and Herod have been looking at Isaiah 60 to find this new king, or at least making the assumption that Jerusalem is the place, perhaps they ought to be looking at Micah 5, the text that is quoted: “And you Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means last among the rulers of Judah. For from you shall come a rule who is to shepherd my people Israel.”  Walter Brueggemann says of this passage, “Micah anticipates a leader who will bring well-being to his people, not by great political ambition, but by attentiveness to the folks on the ground.”  This kind of grass-roots rebellion is just the kind of thing that Herod want to suppress immediately and permanently.

So Herod seeks out the visitors in secret and he directs them with lies. He suggests to the magi that he too wants to worship this king, whoever he is.  He hopes that the magi can become spies for him.  They have come to Herod in good faith, seeking honestly more information and they know nothing of Herod’s intentions for the information that he wants them to procure.

His intentions, of course, we learn of later in the story, after the wise visitors are out of harms way.  Herod, just to be on the safe side, murders all infants in Bethlehem under 2 years of age. not only in 2:16ff but his own family.  Even though he was powerful and wealthy, upheld in his position by  the Roman Empire, Herod was in a constant state of fear for his status.  He was so distrustful of anyone who might take his throne from him that he executed one of his ten wives, drowned his brother-in-law and mother, and took the lives of three of his fourteen children.

How utterly different a king are the magi seeking.  Joe suggested Walter Wink might have something to say about this text.  And indeed, although Wink does not go on  at length about the magi or even about this section of Matthew, he certainly has much to say about Jesus and power.    Wink says
“Jesus does not condemn ambition or aspiration; he merely changes the values to which they are attached: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” He does not reject power, but only its use to dominate others.  He does not reject greatness, but finds it in identification and solidarity with the needy at the bottom of society.  He does not renounce heroism, but expresses it by repudiating the powers of death and by confronting unarmed the entrenched might of the authorities.” Wink, Engaging the Powers, 111

Jesus of course rejects not only murder, but any kind of violence in aid of amassing power.  He does not seek allies, lie or issue spies on his behalf.  He welcome all who would come to follow him. He is unprotected, his entourage is of misfits and outsiders.  If he is to be protected God comes to his aid.  We see as much in the verses immediately following our story, when Joseph is visited in a dream and the holy family flees for Egypt.  Jesus has no need to lie – in fact he comes calling himself the way, the truth and the life.  He comes to unmask the powers, and expose the foolishness of empire.  The true power of the tiny and vulnerable infant Jesus is in the One God whom he embodies.  Unlike Herod, who murdered and fought for the title, this child whom the magi seek assumes his status from his very conception.

To their great credit, the magi came seeking one kind of king – the kind found in palaces ornamented with gold and scented with frankincense.  But when they learned that the star came to rest over a simple house with a poor family and an unassuming child, even though they knew nothing of the man Jesus would become, they take it in stride.  Or perhaps, rather, they have an epiphany!  “It is amazing,” Brueggeman says, “the true accent of epiphany — that the wise men do not resist this alternative but go on to the village. Rather than hesitate or resist, they reorganize their wealth and learning, and reorient themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials.”  Expecting one kind of king, Matthew tells us that in their wisdom, these astrologers from the east knelt with their gifts before a new Messiah.

Also in reading Wink I was led to reflect on whether it might be ironic to be writing a sermon like this, comparing kings, naming Jesus as king.  Wink suggests that Jesus rejected titles all together.  Matthew and the other gospel writers like him, although engaging in the work of telling the good news of anti-empire, still use the language and titles of the domination system – as do we when we use phrase like ‘upside-down kingdom’ or even ‘kingdom of God’ as Jesus does in the Gospels.  Although it is an alternative, it is still named as kingdom.  Wink:
“We must reckon with the possibility that one impulse in the development of Christology was the attempt to insert Jesus back into the hierarchical world of domination by attaching to him honorific titles refulgent [shining/gleaming] with power – the whole operation concealed behind a veil of obsequious [fawning] devotion (itself a telltale sign of domination values).” (Engaging, 113) 
I’m not sure that Wink is suggesting worship or reverence are inappropriate, but that we should realize that even in our attempt to name Jesus differently and in opposition to Empire/the Domination system, we have co-opted empire terminology.  And I’m not even sure that we should stop naming Jesus as King.  I think Jesus was trying to redefine the notion of kingship – king as one who identifies with the least of these.

For this reason that I can appreciate the language of some feminists, including Letty Russell, who use the word kin-dom.  It does feel a little pretentious to use ‘made-up’ language, but what I like about ‘kin-dom’ is that while sounding like ‘kingdom’ it is clear in it’s intended context but it is also clear that it has an entirely other meaning.  Not upside-down but leveled out.  Who did Jesus call his ‘kin’ and invite to eat and drink with him?  Who were the ones who traveled with him and followed him?  Jesus’ birth established a kin-dom of women and children and fishers and tax collectors and soldiers and servants.  Jews and Gentiles (the magi neither least nor last) slave and free, male and female.
Russell says that the kind of  “patriarchal competition” demonstrated by traditional kingship is “cracked by mother and child.”  The star stops over the place and they find Mary with the babe Jesus.  When the wise magi reorient, they discover compassionate kin-dom – another kind of authority in the Christ Child.  Later in Matthew, the Gospel writer refers to it in Jesus as Sophia.  “The Son of [Humanity] came eating and drinking and the said, ‘look a glutton and a drunkard, friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Mt 11:19)  In this passage Jesus is rebuking the cities that are powerful and unrepentant.  He also thanks God for being revealed to the simple and uneducated and he calls all who are weary to lower their loads and find rest in him.

In the end, regardless of whether Wink would rather we didn’t insert Jesus back into the hierarchical world or not, Matthew presents two kinds of kings.  One who is dishonest and violent, and who does back room deals, and a Messiah who lays down his life for his friends.  Jesus saves the world from allies, lies, spies and murder through his life, words, actions, death and ultimately resurrection and return.  As the angel told Joseph in his dream in Matthew 21, “She [Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus/Joshua being a reference to Joshua who led the people of Israel into the land of Canaan. 

When we celebrate the Eucharist later we will be celebrating the kind of kingship that Jesus inaugurated at his birth and that the magi, non-Jews from far off Persia.  Jesus was King of the Jews, but he was also savior of the nations and of us as well.  May our Epiphany be the celebration not only of the infant Jesus, but of the One who grew, lived, taught, told stories, died, rose and now will come again.   Amen.

“Gentiles have been made fellow heirs” – Christ for the nations
“this was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 3:12 in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.”
Herod had been named ‘king of the jews’ by the roman senate
 “The epiphany of Christ and our baptism in him is the death-nail on the head of a death-dealing kingdom and the ushering in of a new kingdom. And what a rebirth! This kingdom is not like the Roman-sanctioned empire that divides those who are free and those who are slaves, those who are Jews and those who are Greek, Romans and barbarians, men and women. In this Kingdom, there is no East or West, male or female, bond or free. In this Kingdom, the outsiders, the Magi from the East, are first and Herod is last by his own choosing. In Christ, we are all one!” –Regina Langley pastor AME in NJ

“Off by Nine Miles” – Brueggeman – Christ. Cent.
– need to travel away from ‘self-sufficiency – [not even about simplicity vs. money and stuff – about being vulnerable to the point of needing community] “The way beyond is not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighborliness, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares.” – the nations/outsiders are eager to make the trip