It’s What’s Happening
The story of the Wise Men (or Magi) who bring gifts to Jesus is both beloved and odd. On the one hand, it’s familiar to many — most every manger scene has the three fancy-dressed men and a camel. On the other, who are these guys? Are they even real? There are so many potential questions, one might miss another all-together weird dynamic: their verbs.
Schoolhouse Rock tells us that verbs are what’s happening. It’s never been more true than here.
When the Magi show up in Jerusalem, they explain to a stressed out and paranoid King Herod that they have come looking for the King of the Jews to “pay him homage.” That’s how the New Revised Standard Version, an English translation of the original Greek, puts it. It’s an important verb in this story. It’s what’s happening. It appears twice more: Herod promises to do it, once he has all the information, and the Magi do it once they reach their destination. But the phrase “pay homage,” which means to show deep respect, doesn’t get to their actual action as described by Matthew’s choice of verb.
What’s happening is proskyneo (“pro-sky-NE-o”). It means to bow down before another so low that you kiss their feet. Ancient writers tell us that it’s the way Persian subordinates displayed their adoration for and obedience to their superiors. They also tell us that westerners (like Greeks) thought the behavior odd, exotic, and probably inappropriate. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the verb gets used only when people are showing reverence to God or a divine emissary. Only God is worthy of proskyneo. Here in Matthew, these Persians, who know how to proskyneo, do exactly that before the infant Jesus. They might simply be reverencing human royalty. After all, it’s in their culture to do so. But Matthew seems to be suggesting something else.
The gospels of Mark and Matthew have several stories in common. Many of them describe people interacting with Jesus. Mark uses a variety of verbs to describe their actions. They kneel before him, they fall at his feet or they are utterly astounded. Sometimes, they are just described as asking Jesus for something. In every one of these stories, Matthew’s version is careful to ascribe to these people before Jesus the verb of the magi – though the English translations usually miss this detail.
I think Matthew is teaching us at least two really important things. First, something that the Magi knew instinctively – that Jesus, who is God come among us, is worthy of our worship. He is worthy of our proskyneo. Second (and this is very interesting coming through Matthew’s gospel, the one most interested in the connection between Jesus and the Hebrew scriptures), when the Magi come to worship, they don’t come as people of the Covenant and they don’t see Jesus as the Messiah of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They come to him in terms of their own culture and their own theological framework. They come in terms of their own hopes and longings. They come looking for one who will bring salvation, as they understand it. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will gather his followers (and they will proskyneo before him) and he will commission them to go to all of the nations with his teaching. On their way they will take that same Gospel and share it in a variety of ways, every time seeking to connect it to the hopes and longings of their hearers.
What are you hoping for in 2020? Perhaps you long for affirmation or companionship, for peace and confidence, for healing and restoration. The salvation that Jesus brings answers to all these hopes and more. This is not to say that Jesus is some sort of untrustworthy shapeshifter of salvation. Rather, the salvation—the life—that God brings is so abundant, so complex, so creative, as to be apprehended in an innumerable variety of ways – as unique as each one he calls to himself.
He is worthy of our proskyneo.
Jan. 8, 2020
- Archives of Devotional Writings from our Pastoral Staff
- “Some Lent!”
- (Your vocation here) of people
- A Point of Privilege
- A season of anticipation
- Advent = Hope
- All will be well
- Are we willing to cross the road for one another?
- Better Together
- Can we learn to be happy?
- Carrying the COVID Cross
- Come and See
- Did Jesus really suffer?
- Doing without in a life of plenty
- Don’t miss this moment
- Exiles with Vision
- Fear not!
- Feeling at Home
- Finding Purpose in the Journey
- Finding Words for Times Like These
- Forgiving others – and ourselves
- Getting ahead with Jesus
- Getting down on Jesus’ level
- Have yourself a merry little Christmas — somehow
- Holy Week and Taking Out the Trash
- Holy Week: The aid station late in the semester
- Hopes & Dreams vs Life in the Wilderness
- How glad we’ll be if it’s so
- I almost slipped
- In a time of uncertainty, these things are certain
- In praise of plans B … C … D …
- In Praise of Skeptical Disciples
- In the midst of grief, God will bring life
- Is there such a thing as being too forgiving?
- It’s a Three Day Weekend!
- It’s In the Bag
- It’s What’s Happening
- Killing off our future selves
- Lessons in fire building
- Let us work for real wellness in our communities
- Life Is a Highway
- Lilies and leaves and whatever else is beautiful
- Living in the Present
- O Lord, you know I hate buttermilk
- Of Fear and Failure
- On Christian Unity: When we’re not one big happy church
- On the Bucket List
- Pray and Let God Worry
- Preparing for the world to be turned rightside up
- Recovering from an Epic Fail
- Reformation calls for examination
- Remembering among the forgetful
- Seeing beauty in brokenness
- Signs of Love
- Starting Small
- Still in the storm
- Taking a Break from the Relentless
- Talking ourselves into it
- Thankfulness leads to joyfulness
- The Art of Holy Week
- The Funny Business of Forgiveness
- The Greatest of These is Love
- The Magi: Exemplars of Faith and Learning
- The Power of Small Conversations
- The Power of Taking a Sabbath
- The Spiritual Gift of Hindsight
- This can’t be done alone
- To be known
- You will be in our prayers this summer of 2020
- Ventures of which we cannot see the ending
- We had hoped
- What do you do with your anger?
- What is your base reality?
- What to do after you find your voice
- What to do on the day after
- What we know and what we don’t know
- When bad things happen
- When joy and sadness live together
- When the promise of resurrection is hard to believe
- When you offer up your broken cup
- Where God will be found
- Where is the good shepherd carrying you?
- Wilderness Journeys
- Year-end time management: Keeping the main thing the main thing
- Your Valpo roots will help you grow into your future