Matthew 2:1-12, Isaiah 60:1-6
When I was in college I sort of dated a classmate who was brilliant. He, as a first year student, was taking a heavier class load than most. His interests were widely varied – and he excelled in all of them.
But, sometimes, you just had to shake your head and ask, "What was he – or what were you—thinking?” He called me one day and said, “Micki, I was bitten by a stray dog. I’ve been to the health center to get the wound treated. They told me that I should keep track of this dog for about eight days to make sure it doesn’t have rabies. So, I was wondering, can I take it to your parents’ house?”
“No!” I said. “They have two dogs – not to mention my younger sisters who live there. I’m not going to ask them to take in a dog that might have rabies.”
“OK,” he said. “How about if they keep it in the garage.”
“Still, no!” I described him as brilliant but having no common sense.
I thought about him -- and that bizarre request – when I read Anna Carter Florence’s reflections on this familiar story of the wise men seeking the child born King of the Jews. She says this story would have had its first hearers rolling on the floor in laughter – like my friends did when I told them about Tom’s ridiculous request. Carter Florence wrote: “Let us cut straight to the point. Being wise is not the same as being smart. To search for Christ is the epitome of wisdom. To underestimate King Herod is the epitome of stupid.”
Last week we remembered that Joseph took Mary and Jesus and fled to Egypt because of Herod’s threats – threats which meant that innocent children were slaughtered. We relegate the stories of Herod’s murderous ways to a footnote in Jesus’ birth stories. But, to hear this story more fully, we have to understand who Herod was. Herod killed not only innocent children, but his own sons –fearing that they were a threat to his throne. Carter Florence says that “You couldn’t pick a worse time for the Messiah to be born than ‘in the days of King Herod.’ You couldn’t pick a worse strategy for the wise men than to cross the border into Israel, head straight to the capitol, and openly ask for the address of some baby that has been born king of the Jews --- adding, of course, that this baby’s birth announcement was actually written in the stars, for everyone from here to Persia to see.”
Phrases that are benignly familiar may reflect something more sinister. “Herod was frightened – and all Jerusalem with him.” Carter Florence says that Jerusalem’s inhabitants had every reason to be frightened – not of the child, but of Herod. For a frightened Herod was dangerous indeed. His fear meant that others would die.
Carter Florence describes this story as a cautionary tale. “See what happens when you just barge right in, in pursuit of truth? Be careful, your books will only take you so far!” She cautions that every context has its Herod. The world is a messy place. Wisdom without “street smarts” fails.
The Christian Church, ever since it entered a place of power on the world stage, has been fond of stating the truth and demanding that the world adhere to its profound wisdom. Many laws were enacted to enforce Christian values. The vestiges remain in many places. And, in our own country, we see many Christian groups pushing to reinstate Christian values as national values. There is a desire to “force” people to live as good Christians. The lack of “street smarts” in such an approach is evident in any honest look at the church’s past and present. Forcing “the truth” on others has led to religious wars, intolerance, institutionalized dismissal of people and groups of people. It has led to real human suffering and pain.
Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, wrote: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Carter Florence points out that no one ever has all the truth. Our wisdom, even the best wisdom, is only partial. We glimpse. We discern. Yet, our ability to do so is always limited by our own preconceptions, experiences, assumptions, and the limit of being human. She also pointed out that even Herod had a piece of the truth that the wise men needed to continue the journey. Herod provided the information that they needed to go to Bethlehem. Could they have gotten that information in a different way – if they’d been street smart? Probably. But they didn’t. They barged ahead with their agenda and didn’t consider the consequences.
Herod had a piece of God’s wisdom. He heard more from the wise men. He could have responded in a very different way. Herod said that he, too, would go and see the child and honor him. But he didn’t. He was given a chance, but he wouldn't look beyond his own agenda, his own fears. Offered a redemption, of sorts, he did not respond, but continued on his murderous path.
These “wise men”, too, made some “colossal mistakes”. But, isn’t that the life of the disciple? Carter Florence describes it as “studying the stars and missing what is right in front of us and blundering into throne rooms unprepared.” We see it in church life when we get so focused on the organization and the institution that we forget God’s call to care for each other, for strangers, for enemies, and for the whole of God’s creation.
Carter Florence’s reflections made me think of the Quaker tradition which asserts that everyone has a piece of the truth and that the best way forward comes only when all voices have been heard. When we do not listen to another’s wisdom, when we do not share our own wisdom, we are not faithful. How daunting it is to consider that even our enemies have a piece of the truth that we need!
Would it change our church/theological discourse and arguments if we assumed that those with whom we disagree have something to say that we need to hear? It takes a vulnerable, cross based, wisdom to be able to listen to those with whom we disagree and who, like Herod, may be a threat. Can we imagine the change in our national/political climate if each side assumed and acted on the idea that the other side had truth that needed to be heard? We have come to the point, it seems, that each side protects its own piece of the truth and assumes that the truth, the wisdom, it has, is all that is needed. So, we all become Herods who protect their own so jealously that others suffer.
But, we, God’s people, should always remember that the cross was not the end. God did not create the cross. God conquered it. God said that the vulnerability of the cross is the way toward healing and wholeness.
Carter Florence concluded: “The pursuit of wisdom the search for Christ, is a lifelong journey. It unfolds over time and with a lot of help…in this story, even Herod gets his chance to repent, turn around, join us on our quest. We will have to take the gamble to offer him that chance. And if he will not join us – well, we will have to return to our own country by another road. But that is always true, once you have met the Christ. You always go home by a different road.”
“You always go home by a different road.” When we have everything set, everything planned, when we are sure we know God’s intent and God’s call, wisdom speaks to us in unexpected voices and unexpected ways, reminding us that our own knowledge is always incomplete. Street smarts, when it comes to living as God’s people, means acknowledging the world in which we live, and listening to the myriad voices, trusting that God speaks to us in many ways – some of which will surprise us, some of which will greatly challenge us. But God does speak. And, out of the ungodly messes of this world, healing, redemption and hope break forth. Amen.