Is 60: 1-6;
Ps 72: 1-7, 10-14;
Eph 3: 1-12;
Matt 2: 1-12
In the liturgical calendar we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord on Jan 6 or the Sunday before that date. So far as research can determine, Jan 6 marked the baptism of Jesus, i.e., his public manifestation in the days of his flesh. Because Luke 2.23 states that Jesus was "about thirty years old when he began his work," some folk concluded Jesus' baptism took place on his birthday. Consequently, for a long time people celebrated what we now call "Christmas" on Jan 6, and indeed the Armenian church still does so. The musical group Simple Gifts made a presentation of Appalachian folk music at Louisville's Filson Club. They told that some Appalachian folk who came from old England were among those who at a relatively late date still resisted the switch to Dec 25 and held on to Jan 6 as "Little Christmas." This they celebrated using the words of "Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning" set to one of their own tunes. In many European countries, gift giving and the equivalent of Santa Claus take place on Jan 6, thus encouraging separation of the commercial aspects from the religious siginificance of the nativity.
In the Common Lectionary the Scripture passages remain the same for all three years, and the emphasis has shifted to the coming of the Gentiles to the true light of Israel, as manifested by the incarnation in Jesus. A clear thread of relationship ties the pericopes together:
- Is 60.1-6 tells of God's glory upon Zion causing her light to shine. Kings shall come to the light on camels, bring gifts of gold and frankincense to proclaim the praise of the LORD.
- Ps 72 voices a prayer on behalf of the (newly crowned?) king, requesting that "all kings fall down before him" and that "gold of Sheba be given him."
- Those passages, in turn, form part of the intertextual background to Matt 2.1-12, the story of the coming of the Magi from the East to worship the new-born king.
- Eph 3.1-12 describes the universal significance of the mystery of the coming and death of Jesus the Messiah, namely, that now the Gentiles, that majority of humanity who are not Jews, enjoy to the full the covenants, promises, and all privileges originally reserved for Israel.
This text occurs in a larger context of 60.1-62.5, another part of which, 61.1-4,8-11, served as a text for Year B 3rd Advent.
The entire ch 60 addresses a "thou" 2nd feminine singular, most likely Jerusalem/Zion (cf 60.14). As YHWH has risen as light upon thee so the nations, now in darkness, shall come to thy light. The idea of Jerusalem/Zion/Israel as mediator to the nations receives further development later on. Here the text emphasizes the extent to which thou shalt profit from the riches of the nations. They will bring thine exiles home (60.4,8-9), along with the wealth of nations, gold, silver, etc (60.5,9). The abundance of precious metals instead of base materials (60.17) recalls the description of Solomon's excessive luxury (1 Ki ch 10). They will supply everything necessary for the sacrificial system of the altar (60.6-7). Foreigners will build up thy walls (60.10), yet totally secure from attack, thy city gates will remain open night and day to receive the tribute of foreigners (60.11; cf Rev 21.24-5). Any nation which refuses to serve thee shall be destroyed (60.12, including a word play, `abad=serve & 'abad=destroy). "Thou shalt suck the milk of nations; thou shalt suck the breasts of kings [sic!]" (60.16). The light theme returns at 60.19-20 (cf Rev. 21.22-27).
McKenzie, (Anchor Bible) calls attention to the fact that the temple does not appear in II Isaiah. "The worship of Yahweh is submission to Israel, for it is through Israel that Yahweh is revealed to the nations, and it is in Israel that he is worshiped" (p 177).
We should note well how the NT birth stories support theologically the life and ministry of Jesus among and to the poorest of the poor. The fact of Jesus implies criticism of national chauvinistic ambition and the pomp and circumstance attending political and religious hierarchy, which to a certain extent colored the messages of the Isaiah of exile and return.
As mentioned in introductory remarks, several phrases in this psalm provide background for the Magi story in Matt 2. Though originally composed (probably) for coronation of an Israelite king (Solomon?), we have come to apply this psalm most appropriately to Jesus.
Before establishment of the kingdom, God's torah instructed the people of Israel to take responsibility in local communities for doing justice and caring for the weak and poor. Kingship concentrated power in a royal person who then became ultimately responsibile for guaranteeing justice and general welfare (without, of course, relieving local communities of their responsibilities).
- "The belief and hope that rulers were the medium and agent through whom the gods dealt with their people was a common feature of the monarchical cultures surrounding Israel. The administration of justice, the conduct of warfare, and the provision of well-being belonged to the office of a king, and he was believed capable of these responsibilities because power flowed to the people from deity through the king." - Mays (Interpretation Psalms, p. 236)
Jesus of Nazareth, the peasant sage with his self-sacrificing compassion and radical egalitarianism, has become for us believers the true channel through which power flows to the people from deity. But instead of wielding power personally and directly from a hierarchically superior position, King Jesus has to work through disciples on the local level where justice should be done and should be seen to be done.
In our celebraton of Epiphany, let us not forget the importance of justice. King Jesus deserves the tribute, the gifts, the homage, and the service of the kings of the nations. Why? Precisely because "he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight" (Ps 72.10-14).
If we really accept Jesus as King, we need to be about the business of justice in our personal life and in our responsibility as voting citizens, paying attention to the kind of people Jesus attended, striving to do so as effectively as did he.
Please don't spend time developing the details of this story as if it were historically factual. Raymond Brown (Birth, p 188f): "Those who wish to maintain the historicity of the Matthaean magi story are faced with nigh insuperable obstacles." Brown expatiates on: a) Intrinsic unlikelihoods; b) Irreconciliability with Luke; c) Conflict with the account of the ministry. "A possible explanation may be found for one or the other of these difficulties, but the overall thrust is clearly against historicity."
Better to pay attention to the theological aspects. The birth story points forward to what happened later:
- The lethal enmity against Jesus of both the political and the ecclesiastical authorities. Jewish scholars had the biblical evidence for expecting Jesus but didn't believe it. The secular power, Herod, did believe, and so he took steps to destroy the challenger.
- By the time of the author, many Gentiles had already begun to enter the Christian fellowship.
- Though outside the covenant people, Gentiles did not necessarily lack for at least a partial revelation. Astrological studies by eastern sages prompted them to come to the light. Brown notes that the story of Balaam in Num 22-24 also underlies Matt's story. He was a Gentile prophet who foresaw the rise of a star out of Jacob (24.17). [Bible Review for Dec 2001 has an intriguing article devoted to a theory about the star. Don't get tangled up trying to explain it in a sermon.]
- In keeping with popular expectation, both within and without Israel's sacred writings, the magi look for the king in a palace, but find him in a humble house (not stable). Again we have an implied criticism of the belief that salvation comes with trappings of power.
I read this pericope in sequence with 2.11-22 and the thrust of Romans 9-11 and come to a conclusion contradicting traditional Christian belief that we now comprise the true Israel and that God has rejected the Jews. I see authentic Pauline theology presenting Jesus Messiah as opening up the way for Gentiles to become incorporated into the true people of God, i.e., the pre-existent Israel.
Israel is the root and trunk of the cultivated olive tree into which Gentiles, as branches of a wild olive, have been grafted (Rom 11.13-24). Israel had the citizenship and the covenants of promise given by God from which the requirements of the law excluded Gentiles. They had been far off, but now through Christ they have come near and been granted citizenship and participation (Eph 2.12-13). The Messiah accomplished this by his own sacrificial death, not by means of the expected imperial type of subjugation of enemies so often described in the Hebrew Scriptures. "In the OT it is mostly the coming, enthronement, or victory of God's Anointed One that leads to unity and peace....[T]he OT sings of the might, Eph 2 of the death of the Messiah" (M. Barth, Ephesians, AB 1/293).
In the pericope for today, 3.1-12, Paul simply develops further what he said so forcefully in the foregoing section. Paul declares that because of Jesus Messiah, Gentiles participate completely with Israel in everything that matters: NRSV "fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus." Using three of his famous "with" words, Greek compounds with syn, Paul expresses these ideas very succinctly: [sygkleronoma kai syssoma kai symmetoxa tes epaggelias]. Barth translates: "joint heirs, members of the same body, fellow beneficiaries in all that is promised" but remarks on the brevity of the Greek by using Latin-related English terms: "co-heirs, con-corporate, co-partakers in the promise." The first and last terms seem OK to me, but for the second one, building also on 2.16, I would suggest "one-bodied" even though it loses the uniformity of expression provided by Latin etymology..
This raises a serious question: what does Eph 3.6 mean, that Jews and Gentiles are syssoma, con-corporate, members of the same body? What does Eph 2.15-16 mean when it says Jesus died so as to "create in himself one new humanity in place of the two [Jews and Gentiles], thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross"?
Traditionally, Christians have assumed that this one-bodiness depends upon all parties knowingly and consciously accepting Jesus as Messiah. We have claimed to supersede Jews as the true Israel of God--supersessionism. We Christians built another wall to separate the Jews (and all non-Christians) from us, but made Jesus into a narrow door through which alone everybody else had to enter to participate in God's blessings.
I don't think that's what Paul means. Hear Barth: "The unification of Jews and Gentiles is not due to an absorption of the Gentiles in Israel or to a dispersion of and assimilation by the Jews among the Gentiles" (p 292). "Their historic distinction remains true and recognized even within their communion" (p 310). "Above all, the joining of `the two' into `one new' whole reveals that neither of the two can possess salvation, peace, life without the other. Jews need Gentiles, Gentiles need Jews, man needs fellow man, if he will be saved at all" (p 311).
Organizationally we Christians certainly do not form one body with Jews, nor do Jews form one body with us Christians. Organizationally, neither Jews nor Christians form one body even within their respective faith traditions. Does our one-bodiness with Jews consist only in our common monotheistic faith? What about Muslims, coming more into public notice since 9-11-01? Does Paul speak of a final, future consummation at present only partially realized? Or does he not speak of a present fact?
Except for radical racists, most of us would agree that biologically and anthropologically Jews and Gentiles do form one body, one common humanity. Paul says the death of Jesus, the Jew, means that non-Jews now can participate fully in the divine privileges originally given by grace to the Jews. Does this not demonstrate that precisely this common humanity and this alone provides the basis for our one-bodiness and makes us all recipients of God's grace, Jews, Christians, Muslims?
At this Epiphany, the manifestation of Jesus as the light of the world, the celebration of the coming of Gentiles to that light might prompt us to self-examination to discover to what extent shadows of pride and exclusiveness still cloud our theology and practice. Does not Epiphany give us new light, new hope, new incentive to reach out to Jewish brothers and sisters, to Christian brothers and sisters of other persuasions, to Muslims, and to human brothers and sisters of whatever persuasion, in quest of one-bodiness in the eternal plan of God for all humanity?
(Comments to Arch at firstname.lastname@example.org.)