The Midrash of Christmas: The Three Kings

Matthew 2:1-12
December 22, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

The theme of my Advent series this year is “Christmas Midrash,” and for the last time, midrash means the extra dialogue, story details, and commentary that ancient Jewish rabbis added to scripture in order to help people better understand its meaning.  Midrash is valued in Judaism, often quoted and studied along with the biblical writings because good midrash doesn’t contradict the Bible; it accentuates and clarifies the biblical message, leading the reader into deeper interaction with the scripture.  Unlike Judaism, the only midrash Christianity has produced is Christmas midrash: over the centuries the church has added many imaginative details to the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth and some of it has lasted because those extra details can deepen our understanding of the gospel proclamation.  The first week of Advent, I talked about how the addition of an innkeeper to the biblical story has come to function as our midrash of confession; the second week I said that the emphasis on the animals in the stable represents Christ’s gospel of reconciliation and peace with all of the world.  Last week, we looked at the traditional midnight setting of the nativity story that reminds us that Christ enters our midst in the darkest of times lifting our loneliness with his presence.  Today, I am going to talk briefly about the midrash of the Three Kings.

This week, I got a text from my son John.  Some of you may think of John still as the little boy you knew years ago but at age 33, John is very grown up and is experiencing, once again, a very grown-up Christmas.  John works as an operations manager and has a lot of end-of-the-year reports due just at a time when many of his staff have taken vacation days for Christmas causing his own work load to increase.  In addition, he is coping with the onslaught of holiday parties he feels obligated to attend.  Being a sociable guy with a very large network of friends, the number of parties is staggering, and many involve gift exchanges which requires that he spend the little spare time he has scouring malls or online sites for appropriate gifts.  Instead of feeling the Christmas spirit, John is just feeling tired.  How many of you can relate to his frustration?  In his text to me this week, he said, “Is it possible that the [gifts of the wise men were not meant to be taken literally?  Maybe] the Magi bestowed upon Mary, Joseph, and Jesus the richness (gold) of enlightenment (frankincense) through the understanding of God and morality (myrrh). Is it possible that the gathering to celebrate the birth of Christ as led by the star was a personal journey?  One that does not require mandatory social gatherings to represent the event?  

“Jesus was born alone in a manger with Mary and Joseph,” he added.  “There was no crowd of friends, there was no ugly sweater, there was no Mariah Carey, Bing Crosby, or Michael Bublé singing about the wants of humanity…. All of this is a social construct around the celebration of a symbol that is meant to empower me, strengthen me, lift me up, and guide me.  How do I reconcile the two?”

My first thought on reading John’s text was, “Preacher’s Kid!” but I don’t think you have to be the son of a minister to have experienced the disconnect between the message of Christmas and our culture’s approach to the celebration of the day.  Moreover, John is right to place much of the blame on the story of the magi bringing their very expensive presents to lay before Jesus.  We see the Three Kings depicted in Christian art draped in ermine robes, gilded brocade, and bejeweled crowns on their heads and their presence at Jesus’ birth seems to require that our Christmas celebrations be similarly lavish and boasting of wealth.  Admittedly, the retail market has helped foster the commercialism of Christmas but I wonder if it would have been a tougher sell if we had only Luke’s version of the baby Jesus being greeted not by Kings but by ragged shepherds trekking the mud of the fields into the cow stall behind the inn. 

The Three Kings, of course, are part of our Christmas midrash.  Matthew calls them magi not kings, and doesn’t say how many there were, and though they do come bearing gifts, the gospel says nothing about whether they were wearing opulent robes or shoddy burlap.  Nevertheless, the tradition that the wisemen were also kings can be traced all the way back to the second century when the church writer Tertullian first connected Matthew’s story of the visitation to the verse in Psalm 72 which says, “May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts.”  And since Matthew mentions three gifts, it’s easy to understand why tradition settled on three Kings, later even giving them names, Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. (1) As I have said before, midrash that endures must accentuate the gospel message so in spite of the way in which the Kings’ gift-giving has warped our current Christmas mentality, it’s worth asking why the midrash of the Three Kings has resonated with the church for nearly 2000 years ago, even long before Santa Claus and stockings and Macys and “Christmas presents for pretty girls” (2) took over our December 25th celebrations.  

Though the transformation of the magi into Kings is midrash, it is good midrash because it, in fact, coincides quite well with the message that Matthew had in mind when he wrote his account of Jesus’ birth.  Matthew wove innumerable references to the Hebrew scriptures into his gospel and Tertullian may be right that the reader is supposed to hear Psalm 72 with its references to the Kings of Sheba and Seba playing in the background as you read this story of the magi.  We know for certain that Matthew intends for you to remember another royal visit from Sheba, the one that the Queen of Sheba made to King Solomon.  In I Kings, we read that when the queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s great wisdom, she traveled to Jerusalem to see this great king for herself bringing a great caravan of gifts — camels carrying spices, gold, and precious stones.   After spending time talking with Solomon, the Queen’s breath is taken away by the greatness of the man. 

“In wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard,” she says to him.  “…Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel forever, he has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness.”

The members of Matthew’s community and later Christians, reading the story of the wisemen from the east bestowing upon Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh would have remembered the similar trek of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon.  They would hear in this story the promise that this baby Jesus would grow to be a King who, like Solomon, would surpass all others in wisdom and would use that wisdom to execute justice and righteousness for the people.  And their anticipation of the just and wise reign of Christ would be confirmed later in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus himself reminds them of that long ago royal visit saying to the skeptical scribes and Pharisees, “The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” (3)

In our midrash, the three Kings draped in their silk and jewels bow down before the baby Jesus and offer him all that they have realizing that something greater than Solomon is here.  Something greater than the greatest King of Israel is here.  Something wiser and more just and more righteous than any mortal King we have known is here. And all of that power, all of that greatness, all of that wealth and wisdom, is given to us at Christmas in the powerlessness of a baby.

In spite of the temptation throughout the history of the church for Christians to ally themselves with power, to amass property and wealth, to establish political influence, and to hobnob with the secular leaders of the world, the gospel is and always has been a countercultural one.  Jesus challenged the political and religious rulers of the day by refusing the kind of power they valued and by rejecting the wealth and status by which they measured their own worth.  He even said to them, “You scramble to hold on to your power and worldly authority but I will let go of it all, even allow you to kill me on a cross, to show you that your way is not the way to life.  True life comes not by lifting oneself above others but by giving it all away for the sake of others.”  In the words of Paul, “…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”   

What kind of baby is this who is born this day?  It is a baby before whom the kings of the world must bow down because he reveals their might and their importance to be an illusion.  Through his hands of healing, through his gift of mercy to the sinner, through his care for the poor, the stranger, the forgotten, the sick, and the heartbroken, and finally through his willing sacrifice on the cross for our sake, he will show us the true way to life; a way of living deeply with others that has nothing to do with how many cars you have in the garage, how many times you are quoted in the press or retweeted across the internet, how many armies you command, or parties you are invited to.  In Christ, we will discover a wisdom that is greater than even the wisdom of King Solomon, for he has shown us how to live in grace with one another and it is Christ’s gift of grace that will empower us, strengthen us, lift us up, and guide us into days of peace and the fulness of joy. 

1. There are many variations on these names but these names are the most commonly known in the western church.
2. “A Charlie Brown Christmas”
3. Matthew 12:42