We always think about the Wise Men as being kings from the East. With that in mind, first of all, it’s interesting to note the contrast between how these kings responded to Jesus’ birth and how Herod, king of God’s people was planning to respond. But second, the three kings from the East contrary to Christian tradition were not actual kings. They were members of the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, a religion that paid great attention to the stars. That was considered a science in those days and accordingly the Wise Men were highly regarded in the society of the day.
The thing is that the announcement of Jesus birth spread far and wide. It reached all strata of society from the shepherds at the lower end to people of science presumably at the higher end and to the king and the courts of the political realm. The manifestation, marked on Epiphany, also spread beyond the community of the people of Israel – Judaism – to members of other faiths. It’s a sign of how far God reaches to touch all people. It is a reach beyond what we may take as the usual ways of connecting: sacrament, liturgy, preaching, social ministry, a welcoming congregation … and so on.
And when you think about Jesus’ later ministry among us, he ate with outcasts and sinners. He identified with foreigners exemplified by the woman at well who was to be stoned for her sins. He was always reaching out to touch those beyond the confines of the religious institution of his day to show a radical new way of understanding and of caring. He even brought a person back from the dead to give a sign of his eternal promise to us.
Through Jesus’ birth, God reached out to all people. So it’s something of which to be mindful: that it is often beyond our normal way of seeing things within the context of the organized Church that God reaches out to others and touches their lives in ways we would not expect. It wasn’t by the usual practices of the community of faith that the Magi responded to Jesus.
While I unfortunately do not have any clear picture of it, this is an indication, it seems to me, of how God reaches out to all people even when our traditional practices in the Church are not as successful or as valued in society as they once were. And so, it seems to me that you and I are called to seek God’s manifestation, God’s presence among us, in ways that are not so traditional or in ways to which we are not now so accustomed.
As a person who values highly the traditions of the Anglican Communion, I see this all as a very great challenge of how to reinterpret the wisdom of what we profess and of how to seek out a new understanding so that we can attain a new vision, a new way of seeing things. Then the great question, it seems to me, is how do we express that new understanding and how do we put it into action. I think therein lies the greatest challenge for us and for people of faith in these days. And, as I say, I for one do not see any easy answers. Rather, it’s a journey. It’s a journey to which the star in the East is calling. It’s a quest to dig deeper.
From my own experience, when digging, into a particular passage of scripture as an example, I usually try to find how the meaning of the passage integrates with everyday life. It’s for me like a journey deeper into the passage. I try to read, in a manner of speaking, between the lines into the deeper meaning that connects at a depth level. A lot of commentaries on scripture give a very simplistic surface interpretation of what the passage is supposed to mean. My struggle with those kinds of simplistic answers is that they do not integrate with the reality of life. They do not stand up to the test of how things are in most people’s everyday lives and the challenges they face.
Here’s a basic example. You know the passage about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The one that also says to turn the other cheek. Not to resist the powers-who-be. The question for me along the lines of what I call integration – how it stands up to the test of the ways things really are – is does this mean that we should not resist or act against oppressive powers? Does it mean that we should just be gentle, meek and mild as Jesus is often depicted? Somehow I don’t think that interpretation integrates well with the actual world in which we live. It doesn’t, for example, correlate with how Jesus acted in the temple with the moneychangers. It doesn’t stand up to the test. How would it be if we are not to resist oppression of people far off or for people right here?
Maybe a clue about digging deeper is Jesus’ words: “You’ve heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ but I say to you …”
* * *
When the King James Bible was being translated from the original languages, it was the time of the Divine Right of Kings. The theory of the Divine Right of Kings aimed at instilling obedience by explaining why all social ranks were religiously and morally obliged to obey their government. So, if you were a translator of the scripture – and didn’t want to lose your head -- you’d be very careful not to include anything that defied this obligation. And so the passage says “Do not resist, turn the other cheek, walk an extra mile, give him your clothing …”
But when you dig deeper, you’ll see that in the original language – Greek – it actually said do not not resist. The double negative equals the positive; that is, “resist”!
If you think more about it, by turning the other cheek, you force your opponent to use his left hand if he is to strike another blow. For numerous reasons the left hand – apart from possibly being weaker – was considered sinister in those days for a number of reasons particularly related to personal hygiene. The word sinister comes from the word meaning left. Anyway, the point is that by turning the other cheek, you embarrass your opponent.
If you carried a soldier’s pack for more than the prescribed distance in those days, you actually got the soldier in trouble because the powers did not want people venturing more than a certain distance from the area they lived and where they were to remain to be controlled.
And given that people wore very few garments as clothing in those days, when asked for his cloak, if one man gave the other man both his garments, he’d be standing there naked … as if to shame the other with the taunt… “I’ve given you everything I have, what else do you want?”
So there’s a very basic example about what I mean by digging deeper to see how the passage integrates with real life. It turns out that the interpretation often taken to be the traditional one does not stand up. It’s not about not resisting. It is actually about resisting, at least by passive resistance.
I use that example just as a basic illustration that came to my mind. There are others less obvious.
* * *
What I think this indicates is that we are called to see deeper into how we understand while keeping in mind that what we see as the traditional may not always be what we can actually be expecting.
The Magi are telling us another thread of the story in our days. The star in the East is calling us once again to a new understanding, to see how God’s presence among us is being renewed in a way we can’t easily understand right now.
The star beckons us to a new journey… to dig deeper … toward being able to understand in our days and to see anew.
And so, be watching for that star in the East.
Be watching for that star and for where it leads.
The Rev'd W Glenn Empey