Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Wisdom, by the Rev. Joel K. Boyd
Edited and formatted for publication by J. E. Tucker, MPH
January 9, 2022
The Gospel According to Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)1
1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
What does it mean to be wise? Is it simply when someone is considered smart and makes informed decisions? Often, we can think of the old as being wise while the young have so much yet to learn. Perhaps the most important thing we should consider here is who defines wisdom. Whereas many see themselves as wise, the [Biblical authors] warn against [doing so]; calling us instead to fear the Lord and to shun evil. In our passage from Matthew 2, we witness the actions of the wise. Maybe we should hold close to scripture then, trying our best to view wisdom through the Bible’s lens.
This morning, we begin a new discussion. It may be a new discussion [to us], but it focuses on a tragically unresolved and long-neglected concern. Yet, not a small concern, nor one which does not include all of us. Doubtless, some may bristle at its mention, and others may fold their arms and think, “what is this pastor talking about?” “This doesn’t involve me; I wasn’t alive back then!” “Everyone is free to do as they please; no one is held back.” “It’s equal, right?!”
When we consider the topic of race in America, it can become emotional. It can put us out of our comfort zone. We either fear being blamed, or we avoid having to take any responsibility. Proverbs 11:30 (NIV)2 says that “the fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and the one who is wise saves lives.” It [does not] say to make excuses.
Since we’re all made in God’s image, we’ve all been made good. God wants us to continue to be good, to do good; not just for ourselves or for God’s sake, but also one another. So maybe we are busy. Do we need to spend the rest of our lives—every waking moment—on one issue of concern over all [others]? Probably not. The prophets weren’t preaching all the time. The early Church served in many capacities. Even Jesus took time to rest and to just be with his friends. Nobody is asking that we give more time than we have. And no one is expecting that we fix everything.
But racial reconciliation does have a way of grabbing hold of our hearts, doesn’t it? Kind of makes us wonder, what are we spending all our time on? When does Jesus ask us to call it quits and just do whatever we want with the rest of our time on earth? When does Jesus just say we have too much on our plate always, that there is never any time to serve beyond our perceived capacity?
The answer is never, of course, to all these questions. Jesus does, [however,] call on us to make sacrifices, but he doesn’t ask us to be experts on every topic. Scripture shows that we are called to share our unique gifts (1 Pet. 4:10; Rom. 12:6). Yet, above all, Jesus calls us to love God, and to care [and] love one another (Mrk. 12:30-31). And so, I hope you’ll not judge me too harshly, and that you’ll join me on this humble journey as we consider racial reconciliation with this being our first step in this series.
In his book The Color of Compromise,3 Jemar Tisby, PhD, extends an encouraging invitation to join the dance of racial reconciliation, even without knowing all the steps. “So many of us fear that we will get it wrong,” Tisby writes, “we worry that we do not know enough yet, that our good intentions may have unintended consequences, or that the very people we seek to serve will rebuke us for our ignorance or missteps. We know that no one can assure us that such things will not happen. Standing for justice and racial reconciliation involves risk. Like all other skills, we can learn, and we can get better. And we can do this together. We acknowledge that we cannot read our way, listen our way, or watch our way into being faithful servants for racial [reconciliation]. At some point, we must act.”
This morning, we re-hear one of the most memorable passages of the New Testament, the story of the wise men who travel to meet the young Jesus. Before digging into the entire passage and how it speaks into the topic of racial reconciliation (specifically, the reconciliation of Black and white Americans), let’s first consider a few things that can help us live into this great event in the Gospel [According to] Matthew.
For starters, [the Gospel According to] Matthew is the only book of the [New Testament] to share this story. Sure, many passages mention “the wise” [and] “wisdom,” but only [the Matthean author] speaks of “wise men” (Matt. 2:7) as we know them.
In various English translations, the wise men are often referred to as the magi. While it may seem like an unusual word, magi is more faithful to the original Greek μάγοι (from the root μάγος), which, interestingly has several meanings itself. The ancient Greek world understood μάγος to mean a member of the Persian priestly caste whose religious ideas were influenced by philosophy, or a magician among other things.
In Judaism, μάγος is a loan word for magician, which the Hebrew people would have been forbidden to associate with (b. Shabbat 75a).4 In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, μάγος is used in the Book of Daniel (Dan. 2:2, 4:4, & 5:15), indicating the possessor of the religious and magical arts of Babylonian mediators between the “higher powers” and mankind. Many modern English translations understand μάγος to be astrologer.
Back in Matthew 2, we witness the challenge of discerning which definition is the most faithful, the most accurate. Were magi [specifically] Babylonian astrologers or astrologers, in general? Magicians or philosophical priests? Were they from Persia or somewhere else? (When I briefly visited the Sultanate of Oman in the Arabian Peninsula a few years ago, I was surprised to learn the history of both myrrh and frankincense there. Frankincense is sap from trees that grow in southern Oman and northern Yemen.) Either way, the magi appear to have come from the east of Jerusalem, and they were widely considered to be smart people of influence.
Matthew shows how magi came to Jerusalem in search of the baby born to be King of the Jews (Matt. 2:2). They followed signs and knew “this” was about the right place. Herod found out about this and was deeply troubled, this would have been a big threat to his power. Sending the magi off to Bethlehem, Herod asked them to let him know where Jesus was (Matt. 2:8), lying through his teeth as to the reason he’d like to visit the child. The magi continue to follow the star, their sign, and they enter the house where Jesus was with joy (Matt 2:9). There they gave Jesus the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and they paid him homage (Matt. 2:11). A dream warned them of Herod, and they left another way (Matt 2:12).
Yet these wise men, these magi, could arguably have gone anywhere else, or have been more interested in someone else. They were intelligent, influential leaders. So why would they travel so far to pay homage to a refugee Hebrew child? To our knowledge, the magi weren’t early Christians, and they weren’t Jews.[A] So how could they have known they should embark on this journey; this unknown journey of a surprising faith? What did any of this have to do with their being wise? Where [was] God in all of this? I would say God was everywhere; God was the reason; and, by reasserting wisdom as God’s own, God sent God’s people on a journey to point the whole world to the love God has for all people and to express how that love not only ends brokenness but also effects authentic reconciliation.
Nikole Hannah-Jones [and The New York Times Magazine] created The 1619 Project, [an anthology of essays] published at the end of 2021.5 Subtitled A New Origin Story, 1619 surveys the legacy of slavery and how it has continued to impact the lives of Black Americans. The project takes its title and content from August 1619, the [year] the very first African captives were taken to America, arriving in Virginia on a ship called the White Lion. With poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and photographs, Hannah-Jones and fellow contributors offer a striking, relevant rehearing of the lasting effects which are so pervasive in American culture that they’ve nearly become invisible. Invisible to many white Americans, that is.
With many of the founders being slaveholders in the time of the American Revolution, historians have remarked that “slaveholding Patriots went to war in 1775 and declared independence [against England] in 1776 to defend their rights to own slaves.” While countless white Americans have approached what has all too often been labeled “the Negro problem” or “the Black problem” in the U.S., Hannah-Jones explains how the statistical focus has been primarily on things like “poverty, out-of-wedlock births, crime, and college attendance,” almost as if to dismiss the most important lens with which to view them: that Black people were enslaved in America longer than they have been free. It’s worth pointing out that, depending on how you view the numbers, and what your definition is of “free,” Black Americans have arguably only been free some decades after having been enslaved for centuries. How can that not matter?
Here, just a few days after Epiphany, when we picture the magi who seek the Christ [as a] child, we must wonder what they were looking for. We don’t know where they came from—specifically anyway. We may not even be that sure how much they came together or whether they knew one another or not. But we do they followed the signs to Jesus. Jesus “called” the magi to himself, they gave offerings, and they [received]—perhaps we see no small amount of our worship service here.
Yet the next part, the part we don’t see much about in the magi, is what happens when we are drawn to Jesus. Jesus the Christ would go on to show, in many ways, that all who are called to his love are then sent to live his love into the world. This is the wisdom of God; not in our own eyes, but the words of the Word made flesh, that we are called from wherever we may be to give to Jesus the Christ and to give as he gave.
Sisters and brothers, may we, regardless of our racial [or ethnic] ancestry, be encouraged to join in being witnesses for racial reconciliation and to walk in loving solidarity with all Black Americans. While we may never be prepared or feel strong enough to do so, we may know most certainly that Jesus is and has always been. While the Christ child drew the wise to himself as they bore him gifts and adoration, the risen Christ sent his mourning disciples to be his love to all people, all to the glory of God.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come,” proclaims the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 60:1), “and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” May we always know that Jesus is with his people; and may we live each day like we believe it. Amen.
- Society of Biblical Literature. The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated. (Meeks WA, Bassler JM, Lemke W, Niditch S, Schuller E, Attridge HW, eds.). HarperCollins; 2006.
- Biblica Inc. The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. 4th ed. Zondervan; 2011.
- Tisby J. The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. Zondervan; 2020.
- Jastrow M. A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature. Vol 1. Luzac & Co.; 1903.
- Hannah-Jones N, The New York Times Magazine. The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. (Roper C, Silverman I, Silverstein J, eds.). One World; 2021.
- Boyce M. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. 2nd ed. Routledge; 2002.