Special Report: Devil in Rome premieres Monday, Aug. 22 at 8 PM ET
In the movie Father of the Bride, the wedding planner and his assistant sing a song about every party having a party pooper. The father of the bride is spoiling his daughter's wedding party. Franc and Howard corner George Banks and sing, "Every party needs a pooper; that's why we invited you. Party pooper! Party pooper!"
In Matthew's Gospel, the Wise Men spoil the party for King Herod. All they want is to visit the baby, sip a beaker of Mary's mulled wine, munch a Mediterranean mince pie and hand in their presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But they ruined Herod's party in the process, reducing him to a nervous wreck.
Herod was a born leader. At the age of 25, his father appointed him governor of Galilee. In 40 B.C., Herod was crowned king of Judea. The Roman Senate made him the "King of the Jews." Herod created a dynasty that was to rule Judea and Palestine for over 140 years.
The newborn Church survived its first 70 years under the Herodian dynasty, and the names of different Herods pop up from time to time in the New Testament.
Herod's greatest talent was his architectural ability. Like the pharaoh of Moses' day, Herod launched the grandest building projects of his time. He built towns, palaces, harbors, irrigation projects, theatres and amphitheaters, hippodromes and fortresses. He brought the quinquennial Olympic games to Judea. He rebuilt the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, making sure that it was bigger than the original Temple built by Solomon. To keep his colonial masters happy, Herod also built a temple in honor of the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus.
Herod was ruthless. But to rule the Middle East, you had to be ruthless. On the whole, his rule brought prosperity. On two occasions, he reduced taxes (once by one-third, another time by one-fourth). Herod possessed an impressive personality, extraordinary intellect, great physical strength, astute political skills and an indomitable will. No wonder he came to be known as "Herod the Great."
Yet, Herod the Great was "troubled" when he heard the news of a little baby (Matthew 2:3). The Vulgate renders "troubled" as "turbatus," and the same word is used to describe the turbulence of a stormy sea. The good news of Jesus' birth was bad news to Herod.
What is it about Jesus that makes some people so troubled? From Emperor Nero to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, from Emperor Domitian to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Herod has had a string of successors who are greatly troubled by the Babe of Bethlehem.
Herod received the first Christmas card in history. He responded by unleashing his dog on the postman. He was troubled. The Wise Men had spoiled his party.
That is why I am reluctant to call them "wise men." If you enter the capital of a country, and if the king of that country calls you and asks you why you have come to visit his country, you really would have to be very stupid to say to the king, "Hail, King. I am looking for a child who has just been born king of your country so I can go and hail him as king of your country."
We don't actually know if the Magi were three wise men or if they were kings. We associate these shadowy characters with three kings because the prophet Isaiah speaks of "kings coming to the brightness of your dawn" and bringing with them gold and frankincense (Isaiah 60:3). Psalm 72 speaks of the kings of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba bringing gifts. But Matthew's Gospel simply calls them Magi. Matthew also tells us that they came from the east.
In those days, Westerners associated Easterners with every form of low life, from superstition to prostitution. The wise men of the West had scant regard for the wise men of the East. The Roman intellectuals of Jesus' day poured scorn on magi who came from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Arabia.
The Roman historian Tacitus called them "absurdities." The Roman philosopher Seneca laughed at the magi who predicted the emperor Claudius' death "every year, every month." The Roman administrator Pliny said he intended to "refute the fraudulent lies of the magi."
Even the Bible has nothing good to say about magi. In the Old Testament, astrology is strictly forbidden. In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar's magi fail miserably when asked to interpret the king's dream (Daniel 2:2–10). In the book of Acts, the magus Bar-Jesus is called the "son of the Devil" by the Apostle Paul (13:8). The words "magic" and "magician" are derived from the words "magi" and "magike." The magi were generally regarded as Mickey Mouse magicians rather than as true wise men.
What, then, spurred the Magi to follow the star? Astronomers have suggested two possible scenarios. First, the Star of Bethlehem may have been Halley's Comet, which appeared in 12–11 B.C. Second, and more likely, it was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which crossed each other three times in 7 B.C. Since Jupiter was the "royal" or "kingly" planet, and Saturn was thought to represent the Jews, the Magi would have concluded that a new king of the Jews was about to be born. Since the Magi came from Babylon (Persia), they would have known of the Messianic expectation from Jews who had been exiled there.
But why did they go to Jerusalem? Why not to Bethlehem? Perhaps they were not so wise after all? Some years ago, a cartoon by Holt appeared in the December issue of Punch magazine. The cartoon depicted the Wise Men en route to the manger. Suddenly, they stop, and one of them points towards a light in the sky. In the caption, beneath the drawing, he is saying to his companions, "Just our luck! A one-star hotel!"
Bethlehem was a one-star hotel — an obscure, insignificant city. Even the prophet Micah, who predicted that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, described Bethlehem as "too little to be among the clans of Judah" (Micah 5:2). Jerusalem was the five-star hotel — the holy city, the royal city, the capital city. Where else would a king be born, if not in the capital of his kingdom? The so-called Wise Men unwisely take their eyes off the star and take the route to Jerusalem. The results are disastrous. Their foolishness alerts Herod to a possible threat.
The Magi's foolish question to Herod, "Where is He Who has been born King of the Jews?" is political dynamite. Herod, not Jesus, is the reigning "king of the Jews." He has been installed by the greatest empire in history.
The words "king of the Jews" occur only four times in Matthew's Gospel — once at the crib and three times at the Cross. Jesus' birth becomes a pointer to His death. At Epiphany, the baby Jesus is threatened by Herod. On Good Friday, the adult Jesus will be threatened by Pontius Pilate — the Roman governor. Pilate will ask Jesus the pivotal question, "Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus will reply, "You have said so" (Matthew 27:11). The Roman soldiers then mockingly address Jesus as "king of the Jews."
At Epiphany, the Magi opened their thesaurus (which is the Greek word for treasure chest) and offered Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. On Good Friday, the Roman soldiers offered Jesus rather different gifts — a wreath of thorns as His crown, a reed for His scepter and the Cross as His throne. Instead of a bright star, there will be pitch darkness (Matthew 27:45).
But as God revealed Himself at Epiphany to the gentiles, the Magi, in His crib; on Good Friday, God revealed Himself to another gentile, a Roman centurion who would make the greatest declaration in human history: "Truly, this Man was the Son of God!" (Matthew 27:54).
Matthew is asking us to listen carefully and prayerfully to the whole story. Herod had good press from historians of his day; the Magi were maligned by the intellectuals of their day. Herod was politically astute; the Magi were politically naïve. Herod had Scripture as his guide; the Magi had nature as their guide. Herod stalked the corridors of power; the Magi walked on the margins of society. Herod built magnificent structures; the Magi made room for God in their hearts. Herod tried to commit suicide and died a frustrated man; the Magi returned home with exceedingly great joy.
Perhaps they were wise men after all. In biblical literature, wisdom is the ability to make the right choices, for "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 1:7). When all is said and done, the Mickey Mouse Magi are wise men and Herod the Great is a fool.
Listen carefully and prayerfully to the whole story. Walk the walk from the crib to the Cross. Keep your eyes on the stars and on the Scriptures. The heavens are telling the glory of God, but the word of God is a lamp to your feet and a light to your path.
Be wise. Make the right choices. Decide for yourself who is king of the Jews and who is the king of your life. Even though the journey may be long and difficult, even though you will face mad, murderous and megalomaniacal Herods on your journey, even though you will make foolish mistakes, come to Jesus by whatever route you can.
Then, when you have reached the manger, bow down before Him as your King, open your thesaurus and offer to Him the best gifts you can find. And the best gift you can offer is yourself.