“Epiphany” means “revelation” or “unveiling”. It’s the season in the Christian year when we learn the identity and significance of Jesus. Today’s readings are all about Jesus as King of the Jews, Messiah, the New Moses and, most importantly, the inclusion of the Gentiles – about how what God has done in Jesus bursts through the narrowly nationalistic interpretations of Jewish eschatology (the culmination of God’s purposes).
King, Messiah, New Moses and the worship of the Gentiles (Matthew 2: 1-12)
Ok, let’s be clear: the Lectionary gospel reading this week doesn’t point us to Jesus as the New Moses, because it ends with the return of the magi, rather than Herod’s murderous response. But we need to bear it in mind, because it’s central to Matthew’s presentation of Jesus, and the purpose of the story of the magi’s visit is both to tell us that Jesus is the king to be worshipped by the Gentiles (Psalm 72/Isaiah 60) and also to set up the Herod/Pharaoh and Jesus/Moses parallels, that evoke the Exodus story.
The visit of the magi belongs only to Matthew’s gospel. So as a rule of thumb, we ought to assume that it is a vital part of why he wrote his gospel – that it contains important insights into the things that Matthew, particularly, wants to tell us about the person and significance of Jesus.
Let’s do some ground clearing. Firstly, the historicity of the events Matthew describes in his infancy narrative (the visit of the magi, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the Bethlehem boys) is impossible to ascertain. Most historians, for example, would tell us that Herod murdered some of his own children and other family members to secure his throne, but that he almost certainly did not organise the Bethlehem slaughter. It is more likely that the details of Matthew’s infancy narrative is shaped by his theology – his desire to portray Jesus as the New Moses – and that he has told the story deliberately to evoke parallels with the Exodus material.
I make this point only to go on to say that I am not interested in the questions of history here, but in how Matthew portrays Jesus. In other words, I am suggesting that we will do better to spend our time (in study and in the pulpit) paying very close attention to Matthew’s very deliberately symbol-laden narrative to hear what he wants to tell us, rather than on trying to reconstruct “what actually happened”.
Secondly, it is interesting to track how the biblical story of the visit of an unspecified number of wise men from the East became the nativity story we see played out in churches every Christmas and sung about in carols: a story of the visit of the three kings, (we apparently even know their names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar) who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew tells us that there were three gifts, which lead us to conclude that there were three magi. And the transformation of wise men (magi) into Gentile kings comes about by connecting this story with Psalm 72: 10-11, as the Lectionary does. This messianic text talks about the eschatological pilgrimage of the Gentiles to Jerusalem to offer homage and worship. The psalmist talks about the kings of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba and bingo! Matthew’s Christmas becomes the story of the three kings from the Orient, bearing gifts as they traverse field, fountain, moor and mountain while following the Bethlehem star.
The magi arrive following what they believe is the birth star of the King of the Jews. The presence of the star signals that this birth is of cosmological importance, with earth-changing events being mirrored in the heavens. Interestingly, Matthew uses this title of Jesus only here and in his account of the crucifixion (Matthew 27: 11, 29, 37), where he refers to the charge over Jesus’ head. In other words, Matthew wants us to realise that the shadow of the cross already hangs over Jesus – even at his birth. He wants to connect Christmas and Easter indissolubly: Jesus is indeed the King of the Jews, and a Saviour-King. His salvation, though, will be accomplished by self-giving and death, rather than military might and conquest.
But Jesus’ death is inevitable, Matthew wants us to know, because he confronts the false King of the Jews, Herod. The theme of kingship is one that is central to Matthew’s gospel. As a devout Jew, Matthew is vitally interested in Jesus the Messiah-king, the Son of David. His proclamation of Jesus’ kingship is played out by contrasting Jesus with Herod.
He does this not simply by emphasising Herod’s ruthless cruelty, his clinging to power and his insincerity in responding to God’s saving action (cf the sincere worship of the magi), but by setting the infant Jesus in direct confrontation with Herod. This is the significance of the “Jesus is the New Moses” theme. Matthew frames his infancy narrative in terms of the Exodus. Herod is the murderous Pharaoh, seeking the lives of the Hebrew infant boys who threaten his rule. And Jesus is the infant Moses who is saved by God in order to deliver Israel from Egypt. Jesus will be the New Moses (5:1) and also the New Israel who remains faithful to God in the desert in the face of temptation (4: 1-11).
That Jesus is the true King of the Jews is recognised absolutely explicitly in his passion. Pilate’s soldiers place a mock royal robe and crown on Jesus after he has been handed over for crucifixion, and mock him as they beat him with “Hail, King of the Jews!” And ironically, the charge against Jesus (“The King of the Jews”) is Rome’s homage to and proclamation of Jesus, the true King.
Matthew uses a loaded Greek word – anatole – to bathe the visit of the magi in messianic expectation. The magi are from the East (anatolai). The word actually means “rising”, and refers to the rising of the sun, which would have had a number of resonances for the first Greek-speaking, Jewish-Christian hearers of Matthew’s story. First, the rising of the sun in the East is connected with light, a frequent image of salvation in the Bible. The Old Testament reading for today (Isaiah 60:1-6), to which the magi story clearly alludes (see especially verses 5-6), begins with the words, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” The verb for “has risen” here, in the LXX translation, is anatetalken, from the same root as anatole. Isaiah’s vision of salvation includes the eschatological pilgrimage of the Gentiles (or “nations”), who will come to Israel’s Light, to worship the God of Israel. The Gentile magi are to be understood as enacting the fulfilment of this prophecy.
Similarly, Numbers 24:17 (LXX) speaks of a star that will rise out of Jacob. This verse was interpreted messianically in Judaism. It is easy to see how a star could become a symbol for the Messiah. The star of Bethlehem needs to be understood against the background of that text: the star indicates the arrival of the Messiah. Anatellein appears again in Matthew 4:16. Matthew comments on Jesus’ appearance in Capernaum with a citation of Isaiah 8:23-9:1, which speaks of light shining on those who dwell in darkness. Matthew deliberately chooses the verb anatellein, which is not in the LXX. His usage here is very similar to Luke 1:78-79, which speaks of the “dawn (anatole) from on high” that “will break upon us” (NRSV), to give light (epiphanai) to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death – also an allusion to Isaiah 9:1; 60:1-2.
Finally, the word anatole is used in Jeremiah 23:5 with a different, but related meaning. Here the word refers to the righteous branch of David, that is, the Messiah. The branch that shoots up from a tree is a “rising” of a different kind (cf. Isaiah 11:1). Stephen Hultgren is undoubtedly in his reflection on this story:
These (and perhaps other) Old Testament texts have undoubtedly lent their emphases on the coming of light, of the Messiah, and of salvation to the story of the magi. While Matthew’s gospel ends with the risen Jesus’ command to the disciples to go out from Galilee to make disciples of all nations (28:19), the gospel begins with an anticipatory visit of the Gentiles to Judea to worship the new-born Messiah. (Stephen Hultgren, “Commentary on Matthew 2: 1-12”,
“The Great Reversal” (Isaiah 60: 1-6)
This is an astonishing salvation oracle. Read the whole oracle (60: 1-22) and look at the great reversal of Judah’s fortunes here: Israel is transformed from a has-been state, over-run by anyone and everyone, at best a vassal state that is forever paying tribute to one super-power or another, into the pre-eminent nation on earth, to whom the kings and nations stream with their caravans and fleets bearing precious gifts and bringing home the exiles (vv5, 6, 9). So constant is this stream of tribute that there is no time to shut the city gates (v11) – but there is no security issue here, because the nations that set themselves against Israel will “perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste” (v12). This is a radically altered geopolitical landscape in which there is one option: serve Israel, or be wiped off the map.
It is specifically the reversal of the fortunes of Israel’s enemies, as well: the former oppressors, like Joseph’s murderous brothers, “will come bending low” (v14). Former overlords are reduced to the status of nursemaids (v16). Jerusalem will be upgraded on a massive, lavish scale, using the wealth of the tribute they will bring. In language reminiscent of the Hebrew slaves in the brickyards of Pharaoh (see Exodus 5: 10-14), Yahweh will appoint as overseers Peace (shalom) and Righteousness (sedeqāh), who will superintend for well-being (v17). All the old hallmarks of former life (violence, devastation and destruction) are replaced. Now the city is marked by Salvation that leads to unending doxology (Praise) (v18).
What we need to recognise, however, is the centrality of Yahweh. This great reversal comes about because of the reversal in Yahweh: God’s wrath (that brought about exile) has been reversed, and God is now acting in mercy (v10) – a mercy that will be forever (vv 19-21). This new, mercy-driven reversal is the Rainbow to exile’s Flood: never again will Israel’s life be shaped by Yahweh’s punitive wrath.
This reversal – this salvation – is not simply an act of Yahweh: it is nothing less than the presence of Yahweh. In exile, Yahweh has been conspicuous by felt absence; now Yahweh is so palpably, powerfully present, and so consistently, constantly present, that God replaces Israel’s sun and moon (vv 19-20). Israel is the focus of this tribute-bringing eschatological pilgrimage of the nations, not for its own sake, but because of the presence of God (vv 9, 14). So richly will Israel be bathed in the glory of Yahweh’s presence that Israel’s own glory will be indistinguishable from that of God’s (v19b). Service and tribute to Israel is the means by which the nations bring their worship to Yahweh.
This is the focus of the week’s Lectionary passage (60:1-6): Yahweh is going to “arise upon [Israel], and God’s glory will appear over [Israel]” (v2). The appearance of Yahweh in salvation and mercy is what triggers the pilgrim journey of the Gentiles (the nations) to Israel (v3), beginning the process of the ingathering of the exiles (v4) and the great reversal in Israel’s fortunes (vv 5b-6).
This is what connects the passage to Matthew’s story of the adoration of the magi: his story is undoubtedly shaped both theologically and in terms of content by these verses, so that the journey and homage of the magi, with their tribute gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (see particularly v6) is, in Matthew’s terms, the fulfilment of this prophetic oracle of salvation. By evoking this section of Isaiah in the minds of his hearers, Matthew is telling us that Jesus is the very presence of God (he is Immanuel – “God with us”), and at the same time, all the fullness of Israel’s (and the world’s) salvation.
It is time to “rise and shine”, because Jesus, God’s Light and very presence, has arrived. The glory of the Lord has risen upon us (cf 60:1)!
It is vital to sound a cautionary note here, however. One reading of this passage is to recognise that the reversal here does not go far enough. Straightforwardly, what has happened is that the boot is now on the other foot: Israel, the former exile/slave community, has become the new Pharaoh! As Egypt/Babylon received tribute from Israel and other subject nations (or else exterminated them), so Israel is now sitting on the throne, receiving homage and the very best of what the nations have and can offer.
Do you see the problem here? It is only the cast that has changed: the imperial/colonial system is still intact. This eschatological vision does not go as far as Isaiah 2: 2-4 (the earlier vision of the eschatological pilgrimage of the Gentiles), in which the very heart of the slave systems of the world (military power and domination) are undone, and swords are turned into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks.
What is there in this vision of Isaiah 60 to ensure that Israel will not simply become the latest, oppressive Pharaoh, reducing the oracle to a crude “promise of revenge” to Israel by Yahweh? Theologically, the answer is the presence of God. Isaiah presupposes that “salvation” includes Israel becoming the community God always intended it should be – a community that manifests precisely the different way of exercising power that we are looking for here, and a community of blessing to the whole world.
The trouble is that a theological answer alone doesn’t ensure that this will be the lived reality, any more than liberation from the camps and the horrors of the Holocaust has automatically ensured that the Israelis will never behave like Nazis. Why else would Israel justify its policies of Palestinian land theft and oppression by appeal to 60:21b (“You shall possess the land forever”) while ignoring 21a (“Your people shall be righteous” ie just)?
This is the tension at the heart of Covenant: how does the covenant community avoid the constant temptation of interpreting God’s grace, mercy and generosity as private advantage, to be used as a weapon in competition against other groups and nations, rather than for universal benefit (cf Isaiah 49:6)?
“Give the king your justice, O God!” (Psalm 72)
In the seminal 8th chapter of 1 Samuel, Israel demands “appoint for us a king to govern us, like the other nations” (1 Samuel 8:4b). The reader is made overwhelmingly aware of two factors: firstly, this demand amounts to a rejection of Yahweh as Israel’s king (1 Samuel 8:7) and secondly, that God will be gracious both in answering their request and, crucially, in giving them a king unlike other nations. Israel’s king is to stand out from the crowd of Ancient Near Eastern monarchies by being like Yahweh. And that God-likeness is seen in the practice of justice.
This situates monarchy within a permanent tension between royal ideology (the Davidic covenant that establishes a Davidic monarchy, situated in Jerusalem and supported by the temple cult) and the prophetic requirements of Mosaic (ie Torah) justice. In the biblical tradition, the Davidic kingship “had the establishment and maintenance of justice as its primary obligation to Yahweh and to Israelite society” (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1997, p 611).
Brueggemann continues, “This justice, moreover, is distributive justice, congruent with Israel’s fundamental covenantal vision, intending the sharing of goods, power and access with every member of the community, including the poor, powerless and marginated” (Ibid).
That the king’s primary purpose is to mediate Yahweh’s justice is nowhere more clearly articulated than in this week’s royal psalm. “Justice” and “righteousness” (v1) are parallelisms: divine righteousness and justice and indistinguishable, and the (human) practice of justice echoes and articulates divine righteousness. The just king, therefore, mirrors Israel’s God.
Note the emphasis on the poor and needy. Verse 4 is couched as a prayer for the poor and needy, and vv 12-13 a celebration of that prayer being answered. What is important to note is that it is the practice of justice in the interests of the poor and needy that defines and interprets Yahwistic (Torah) justice.
This is important. Ask a congregation who would support justice as a gospel value and practice, and no one will dissent. Ask them what the practice of justice entails and you will see the breadth of disagreement over what justice actually means. One key question is, “Justice in whose interests?” Most groups will end up opting for something like “the greatest good of the greatest number”. The Torah tradition disagrees emphatically and unequivocally: it lies in the prosecution of the interests of the poor and needy.
This is a justice that is always on the side of the victims. It is Yahweh’s justice, Yahweh’s character. This is what prevents an Israelite king from becoming an oppressor king (Pharaoh) “like other nations”… in theory, at any rate. Victim-hood is defined as the experience of being on the wrong end of the exercise of power-as-domination. It is not defined ethnically or nationally. Israel’s status as Yahweh’s beloved never entitles it to exercise power in its own interests (“like other nations”), but constantly challenges it to mirror God’s own passion and concern for the poor and needy. The moment it becomes “like Pharaoh”, it loses legitimacy and betrays the Covenant.
Note the similarities with and echoes of Isaiah 60: 1-22 in Psalm 72. The just Israelite king mirrors Yahweh, and is revered as Yahweh is. References to the sun and the moon – givers of light – are echoed in v5. There is the same connection made between the practice of justice and blessings of peace (v7), fertility (v16) and universal blessing (v17) – ie shalom. As in the Isaiah 60 oracle, the psalm envisages the Gentile kings bowing before him and paying tribute, and his enemies being vanquished (vv 8-11, 15). Ultimately, it is Yahweh whom the king mirrors rather than the king himself to whom universal praise and adoration is appropriate (vv 18-19).
We are safe in the hands of an Israelite king for as long as the king does justice on behalf of the poor and needy. That is the first answer to the problem of the reversal in the vision of Isaiah 60: 1-22.
Including the excluded (Ephesians 3: 1-12)
The second answer to the problem of the limitations of the Great Reversal in Isaiah’s vision is given in this passage from Ephesians: the breaking down of all categories of exclusion. God’s blessings of shalom are effected in Jesus for the benefit of the whole of humanity. What God has done in Christ is to restore humanity by breaking down the divisions that set different groups (nation, race, class, gender etc) in competition with one another for market share of God’s blessings, as though shalom was a scarce commodity. This is the “mystery” of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the gospel, which Paul has come to know by “revelation”.
2,000 years after the event, we are required to engage in an extraordinarily difficult act of imagination to hear this message as fresh news. We are, after all, “Gentiles” – those who have been the beneficiaries of this Good News for two millennia. We hardly need convincing that we are included, because we have no memory of exclusion!
Yet for Paul, this flows directly from his experience of the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road, and is what turns Saul the Pharisee into Paul the Christian missionary. For him, as for the Jews of his day, this is the unthinkable that has happened as a result of Easter (ie as a result of the fact that the Jewish religious leaders crucified the Messiah under the Law on Good Friday, and that God has raised Jesus from the dead on Easter Sunday).
Jewish eschatology, embodied in the Isaiah vision of the eschatological pilgrimage of the Gentiles to Jerusalem, envisions the Gentile nations recognising Yahweh’s majesty through the restoration of Israel from exile in Babylon, and journeying to Jerusalem both to pay homage (Isaiah 60: 1-22) and “learning Torah” (Isaiah 2: 2-4). In so doing, they will participate derivatively in God’s blessings of Law, peace, righteousness, justice and fertility (shalom). This is the way in which the election of Israel will be a blessing to “all the families of the earth”, as God had promised to Abraham (Genesis 12:2).
What this eschatology does not do is to challenge the fundamental division of humankind into Jews and Gentiles. That fundamental difference is the foundation of the Covenant and permanent. Nothing in the faith and theology that Saul the Pharisee has learned has challenged that assumption. That is why he describes it as “a mystery made known to me by revelation” (v3): it could not have been surmised or deduced without undercutting the whole understanding of Covenant and Torah.
What God has done in Jesus Christ, however, is far more radical than even Isaiah envisioned! God has broken down “the dividing wall” between Jews and Gentiles, so that all are included in the New Humanity in Jesus Christ. “There is no longer Jew or Gentile … for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And if that fundamental division is gone, so too have all the other categories of in/out, inclusion/exclusion: slave/free, male/female. And we may add to that list whatever other artificial categories of exclusion we set up (First World/Third World, natives/immigrants, black/white, gay/straight etc) because that list is not exhaustive, but the foundation of the unravelling of all justifications for exclusion.
What is “mystery” to Paul, however, is that he has come to realise that the inclusion of the Gentiles has been God’s intention all along (v9) and is only now made known in the preaching of the gospel and made visible in the community of the church – a community that, against all possible realities, includes Jews and Gentiles (v10). It is “mystery” for Paul because, were we to ask him, “Well then, why did God apparently set up the whole system on an entirely different basis?” he would have to answer, “I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense, other than to advance the fraught and fragile claim that God’s love, grace and will for shalom is and always has been universal in its scope and purposes. However absurd it might seem to proclaim, it is true nonetheless: the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (v6).
We need to try and “feel” that mystery. We are saved by grace – not only by God’s refusal to let stand our Last Word of “Crucify him! We choose to be godforsaken!” but also because we are Gentiles, included in shalom of God’s covenant with Israel, fellow-heirs with the Jews, adopted children of their God, and co-inheritors of their hope for a world transformed into their God’s kingdom. Their God has become our God also – not because of our wisdom or goodness or choice, but because of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
If only that mystery were always alive to us, evoking astonishment and humility! If it had been, we would not have had the shameful history of Christian anti-Semitism that has justified itself on the grounds that Christianity has superseded Judaism, that God has switched favour to the Gentiles ever since the Jews killed Jesus, that our inclusion in the Great Reversal of Easter means that the Jews are now excluded from the promises of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. This is the history that issued in the Holocaust – the terrifying attempt by Christians to rid the world of all trace of God’s Chosen People.
The truth is that Christianity, for all its institutional size and power, is a Jewish sect – a universal, messianic sect that views its shared traditions and roots within the Hebrew Scriptures and practice of faith in Yahweh through the lens of the Christ (ie Messiah)-event. And if we are right in our understanding, our presence and lives will make the world more grace-filled, not filled with more crucifixions.
At Epiphany’s outset, let us pray that we would be so astonished by the grace of our inclusion that our hearts and churches will be open in radical welcome to everyone – whoever they are and wherever they are on their life journeys. Then, like Israel’s king, we will reflect the radically welcoming, inclusive, world-changing love of God in Jesus Christ, and make a difference – for Christ’s sake.