The magi were always my favorite characters to place in the nativity scene at Christmas time. While all of the other characters looked largely the same, the magi were distinctive - dressed in fine clothes, carrying gifts they stand out among the other worshipers of baby Jesus as much now as they undoubtedly did back then.
But like such about the Christmas story, our familiarity with the narrative can obscure the real meaning. Like a song we have sung a thousand times, it’s easy to forget to think about the words because we’ve heard them so many times.
These magi were not the sort of worshipers that a good, God-fearing Jew during the time of Jesus would have expected… or frankly wanted. These men were foreigners, which even today is a word that communicates distrust. Worse, they were magicians - astrologers, who thought the stars foretold the future, and likely practiced other ancient forms of magic. The Old Testament forbade God’s people from associating with people like them. The Pharisees would have told Mary of Joseph to refuse their gifts and banish them from the nativity scene. Surely God would not want those people near His messiah.
And yet, in Matthew’s account these outsiders are the only people who understand the full scope of what the messiah represents. They go to the King of Judea and his court - surely expecting that the leaders of God’s people would know about the miraculous thing the Lord had done - only to be met with blank stares and lies. When they finally encounter the infant Jesus, they give Him gifts that clearly demonstrate that they understand what the messiah had come to do - likely better than even His parents did: Gold was a traditional gift to kings. Frankincense was used in temples to honor the gods, while Myrrh was a fragrant oil used during burials. In contrast, the only gift Herod, the King of the Jews, sends to the savior of the world is a team of assassins.
Right from the beginning, Matthew defies our expectations of who and what the messiah was going to be. People living in Jesus’ day expected Him to be a leader to the Jews against the Gentiles, someone who would “Make Judea Great Again,” if you will. Instead, the messiah welcomes foreigners, outcasts, and the enemies of God’s people as worshippers while He is being hunted by the very people who should have been His champions. Throughout His ministry, Jesus will find himself at odds with religious leaders while the sinners, traitors, and lepers flock to him. And all the while, He preaches that in His kingdom, it is the poor, the meek and the merciful who will be blessed.
If you had lived in Jesus’ day, would you have run to his side? Would you have embraced Him and His message? Or would you have seen the crowd of undesirable people - prostitutes, sinners, homeless and foreigners - around Him and turned away? When you see someone different than you, do you see a potential brother and sister, or a reason to cross to the other side of the street?
Ask your Lord today for the wisdom to see others as He does - not by their exterior, but by their heart.