The story of the wise men, kings, or magi from the east is an interesting one. Often conflated with the Christmas story, the events described by Matthew in Sunday’s Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Epiphany seem to have taken place well after Jesus’ birth. Given Herod’s reaction with the slaughter of the innocents, it seems likely the wise men showed up upwards of a year or even two later. Matthew indicates that the Holy Family are still in Bethlehem at this late date. From other Gospels, we can assume they had travelled to Jerusalem for a short visit to the Temple to offer the proper sacrifices for the birth of their son and the purification of Mary. Oddly, at least according to Matthew, they didn’t return back to Nazareth after the census was over, thus allowing the priests and scribes to interpret the prophecy of Micah with the declaration of the people that David and his lineage would rule as king and shepherd from his hometown in Bethlehem.
What’s odd about all this is how the magi end up in Jerusalem at all. They have been following the star that alerted them to the birth of this new King of the Jews for quite a while by the time they reach the capital city. Matthew doesn’t seem to indicated that the star suddenly disappears when they arrive in town, but rather, it would seem that these powerful religious leaders from the east became distracted by power and prestige. Suddenly, the star that had been leading them for months was not the source of the answers they sought. In a move that would baffle modern political strategists, the “wise” men detour off course to ask the sitting king where the new king was to be born. This deviation from their primary role as star-gazers leads to the death of many innocent children, causes the Holy Family to have to flee to Egypt, and is even quickly realized as a mistake by the magi who receive a dream that warns them to return home by another road.
How often it is that we get distracted by power and prestige. As the new Congress takes office today and the government shutdown nears its third week, Americans are keenly aware of the role that those in power can have over their lives. Like the three kings, however, when we focus on the powerful, we tend to forget the things that have grounded us in ages past. We can lose focus on our call as members of what was originally a persecuted sect of an impoverished and oppressed religious group to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Like the “wise” men, when we lose that sense of our original purpose, the collateral damage can be quite severe. The details of the Epiphany story are worth noting, dear reader, as they remind us to keep our eyes not on the powerful and the privileged, but on how God’s specific call to each of us can work toward the restoration of this world.