After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2 They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east, and we have come to honour him.”
3 When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. 4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
6 You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come The Governor,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you have found him, report to me so that I too may go and honour him.” 9 When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with great joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
The author continues his/ her story of the birth of Jesus, the child born as the descendant of King David whose line of descent is interrupted by the action of God who causes his other to conceive him without sex. The implication is that although tlhe child is the promised Messiah, he is more than that.
In this passage, the focus is on the child as Messiah. The author’s storytelling voice uses traditional Jewish narrative language, ” during the rule of King Herod”, “everyone is Jerusalem was troubled” reminding the audience that this is to be heard as a story not a recital of facts. If this audience knew the Gospel of Luke they would have realised that Matthew thinks Jesus’ family came from Bethelehem and had a house there, and betrays no knowledge of the shepherds, while Luke has no story about the Magi or King Herod.
Matthew’s is a politico- spiritual story. As soon as the Messiah is born, Gentiles come to honour him, while the Jewish establishment, King and counsellors, try to murder him. The Magi are not identified by race, nation or culture; they come from the East representing the astrological wisdom associated with Babylon and Persia. They have no names, nor are they said to be three in number. They are storybook characters, humanised by their encounter with Herod, and by the great joy with which they respond to the movement of the star, which is itself of course, part of the furniture of stories about the birth and death of kings in the ancient world.
Matthew repeatedly emphasises that the events of his story are orchestrated by God as fulfilment of prophecy, through the mediation of the Holy Spirit and the angels. In a sense, the true author of the story is God, who makes it part of the longer story of his partnership with Israel. It is not factual history. The bible gives us very little factual information about the birth of Jesus. Probably his parents were Mariam and Joseph, who probably had a builders’s business, maybe in Nazareth. He had at least one brother, James, known in the later history of the Jesus community. Probably he was born around 4BCE by our reckoning.
So Matthew is using his storytelling skill to tell his audience “what was really happening” in his birth, what effect it would have on his own people and on the wider world; what contribution it would make to the story of God’s politics, that his, his way of establishing his rule in the world. The story tells us more than the facts, not less.
Does this story have a connection with the prophecy of Isaiah,
“Gentiles will come to your light
and kings to the brightness of your rising”? (Isaiah 60:3)
Matthew does not quote it and his Magi are not kings, but I imagine the verse is productive in the sources that Matthew is using. Indeed these sources seem to me to either be Gentile or to reflect the experience of Gentile followers of Jesus. The figures of the Magi enact the Gentile journey towards the truth of Jesus and the joy with which they responded to him.
The audience is meant to respond to the story by following the journey of the Magi, to join the longer story of God and his people, to realise that the powers of state and religion will rise up against this vulnerable child, to hold neverthless to the great joy of finding him, and to trust him in their “own countries.”