Learning from the Magi
The scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition invite us into the human struggle for truth. They are not perfect from any angle and some texts should trouble us. The scriptures reflect the faith journeys and struggles of faith communities, therefore, we should expect to find in our scriptures contradictions, paradoxes, conflicts, and inconsistencies. When we struggle with the sacred text, we struggle with God, and that provides us with an opportunity to grow up, to evolve in spiritual consciousness.
Creeds and doctrinal statements are basically distractions that invite people to avoid the struggle and, as a result, avoid real growth and transformation. My assessment of such documents is obviously biased, springing from the impact they have had on people I know. Creeds and propositional statements of doctrine offer single sentence answers that end the questioning and hence, the thinking, searching, and struggling with questions of faith.
In the Gospel story of Matthew 2:1–12, the chief priests and teachers of the law offer King Herod a quick answer. They quote the creed; they quote scripture. But they do not know nor do they even care to know the truth.
By way of contrast, the magi are truth seekers. They are not of the Jewish tradition, nor are they interested in converting to Judaism, but they are drawn to a strange land among a strange people by a star. The star is a symbol for what is true and real. They are willing to pursue the truth wherever the truth is to be found and they are ready to embrace the truth whatever the truth might be.
It is important to note where the star did not lead them. It did not leave them to the
become a place of exclusion. There were boundaries clearly marked and strictly
enforced that signaled levels of holiness and worthiness. Women and Gentiles
were relegated to the outer boundaries, while the sick and impure were
completely excluded from the Temple
religion was commonly marked by self-righteous pride and one-upmanship. Temple
The star led the magi to a place of poverty and humility, where they were warmly welcomed and their gifts gratefully received.
The chief priests and teachers of the law are leaders who wield religious power with more important things to do than go wandering off on a spiritual quest for truth. They are the guardians of the status quo, boundary keepers who have a lot of ego to protect. They quote scripture and offer a quick answer to maintain the power structure and the pecking order.
The magi have nothing to protect. They are willing to leave all behind, journey to an unknown place, and give away precious treasures all in the interest of knowing the truth.
The pursuit of truth leads us into a struggle with our sacred scriptures. In many ways the Bible mirrors our own spiritual struggles, our advances and setbacks.
The Jewish leaders danced to the tune of the dominant power exhibited by King Herod and did not have the spiritual acumen to discern that they were moving backward rather than forward. This is when religion turns destructive and deadly.
The choice before us is whether we will settle for easy, quick answers that support the status quo and draw narrow lines defining who is in or out, or whether we will follow the star into previously unknown lands that welcome all humble seekers of truth.
If we approach our scriptures like the magi, open and receptive to the Divine Spirit, then we can see in the Bible a general progression, an evolution of spiritual consciousness born of struggle.
It is a movement from violence to nonviolence, from manipulative, coercive power to relational, persuasive power, from the divine right of kings to servant leadership, from exclusion to inclusion, from patriarchy to egalitarianism, from preoccupation with right doctrine and cultic ritual to the pursuit of inner humility and integrity, from retribution and pay backs to forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemptive justice, from laws of purity enforced by religious power to the law of true liberty, the law of love written on minds and hearts of compassion.
It is a slow process. I like the parable of the mustard seed and the growth parables in the Gospels because they give me hope—hope for myself when I seem to keep making the same mistakes and hope for the world when we seem to be moving in the wrong direction.
For Christians for whom the Judeo-Christian scriptures are central to their faith, the revelation of the character of God reaches its peak and pinnacle in the revelation that comes through Christ. It takes us a long time to get there. But in Jesus we meet a completely nonviolent, compassionate God. Of course, even after we arrive at Jesus, we still have the problem of living with that revelation. So there are regressions still, like the kind we see in the book of Revelation where the nonviolent Jesus of Paul’s letters and the Gospels is made into a violent, blood shedding heavenly warrior.
As we struggle with our sacred scriptures, the magi remind us that transformative truth can be found. It’s not likely to be found in short answers, Bible quotes, and creedal definitions. It requires a journey that leads us into new places as we leave behind familiar surroundings to embark upon a humble, sincere quest for what is—for what is real, true, and life changing and for the God who is more than we can ever think or imagine.