Sunday, January 25, 2009

One of Maxwell Smart’s favourite self-justifications, every time he finds himself outwitted, tied up or dangling at the end of a long rope – whenever he’s made himself look foolish yet again and played right into the hands of Kaos – is, “missed it by that much!”.  I guess it’s Max’s way of saving face – to deflect attention from the “oops, stuffed up again” moment by reminding the Chief – or anybody else who might be watching – that it really was a very difficult shot and he almost, very nearly, made it.  Course, when your life depends on it, or when the future of democracy as is usually the case on one of Max’s missions, then actually that doesn’t really help a great deal.

Today we listen in on a cosmic “missed it by that much” moment.  A great big “doh” from the supposedly wiseguys who’ve come all this way from the exotic lands to the East - and landed in the wrong town.  “Missed it by that much”.  In the Monty Python movie, “Life of Brian”, the wise men get to Bethlehem but end up at the wrong stable just in time to witness the birth of an insignificant Jewish boy named Brian and hand their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to his very surprised-looking mum, who doesn’t think much of the myrrh and tries to give it back.  But Monty Python really didn’t need to bother.  The real mistake the wise men make in Matthew’s version of the story is to read the wrong verse from the Old Testament and go to the wrong town.

Certainly Matthew himself, as a master storyteller, has also been getting a bit of background material out of Isaiah, chapter 60.  It’s just that it just doesn’t quite fit for the baby born on Bethlehem. The people of the Torah had come back to the land after years of exile in the fleshpots of Babylon where the sharemarket had just kept going up and up [no, seriously, they actually did very well there], and they had acquired more intellectual and political sophistication than they ever could have got at home, and now what do they come home to but a broken-down economy, a bombed-out city and nobody with any clue about how to fix any of it up.  And, like any good economist, the poet dares to suggest that the only real missing ingredient is hope.  “Stop being so down in the dumps, light up on the neon lights and switch on the music”.  And the poet says Jerusalem is again going to become a beehive of productivity and prosperity, a centre of international trade.  Caravans of traders are going to come laden with precious goods, frankincense and gold just for starters.  Nations will be drawn into your orbit like moths around a flame, foreign kings will come flocking to the brightness of the opportunities you offer.  It’s good, stirring rhetoric, the triumph of hope over experience which is exactly what we all need when the bottom drops out of things.  And Matthew the storyteller picks up this vision as his template for the original mission of the wise men.  Presumably he’s also been reading the newspapers, he remembers the political delegation that arrived to see Herod the Great around 11BC [according to Josephus], maybe he’s heard the official legends of the star that greeted the birth of the Emperor Augustus, he’s heard of Halley’s comet that made an appearance a few years earlier, and he certainly remembers the prophesy made by the pagan prophet Barlaam in the Book of Numbers: ‘a star shall arise out of Jacob’. [1]  This sort of event was not unheard of in Matthew’s day, though what we might make today of a star that travelled around corners until it finally hovers just over the roof of somebody’s back shed is another matter.  Whatever the historical underpinnings, as a story it says that the birth of this baby is going to have international reverberations.  And of course in Matthew’s actual story in the Bible they aren’t kings but magoi, which means soothsayers or astrologers, in other words men who use the occult arts to read the signs of the times – so maybe there’s also an implied criticism there – Israel’s own priestly caste don’t get it, and they don’t recognise the Messiah when they have the chance, but these pagan astrologers manage to work it out.

Except that the way Matthew tells the story, they’re basing themselves on the wrong Bible verse, and they arrive in the wrong town.  You can just about imagine the scene with a cranky king Herod having to act the diplomat, hastily consulting a few wise men of his own, specialists in Old Testament studies who tell him Isaiah chapter 60 is wrong, which is a shame because that’s a good one - all about Jerusalem regaining its greatness which is good news for merchant bankers and media barons and visiting diplomats and for Herod too, because it would mean that the status quo wouldn’t change.  But unfortunately for you, the Bible scholars assure Herod, the correct citation is Micah, chapter 5, verses 2-4.  “But you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, one of the smallest of the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, one whose origin is from of old”  And that, the religious professionals explain to Herod, is not such good news for you because it’s a peasant fantasy, a vision of the future that doesn’t depend on banks and stock markets, and not on Temples and priests either, but on the flourishing of justice and a leader who models the upside-down, grass-roots power of compassion and forgiveness and self-giving love.

Herod tells the magoi what they need to know, but makes his own extreme preparations just in case God turns out to be right.  Luckily, he doesn’t think of getting anybody to follow them, because as soon as they leave Jerusalem the star reappears to guide them the five miles down the road to Bethlehem and the right address. 

And I think that in the way Matthew writes the story he’s dropping us a hint.  He’s giving us all the fireworks and all the nationalistic references of Isaiah chapter 60, parallels to the dream of restored national glory and economic success, as well as obvious parallels to the self-promoting mythology of the powerful and elite in his own world – and then he says, “Doh!”.  “Missed it by that much”.  It’s not Jerusalem, it’s Bethlehem.  It’s not just gold and frankincense – it’s also myrrh.  And he shows us the magoi veering suddenly sideways, off the beaten track and disappearing back into the desert by a different route.

Why myrrh?  Gold is for kings, everybody knows that, and if this king was also supposed to be a priest in the tradition of Aaron, then frankincense is also an obvious choice.  If you’re bringing gifts to Jerusalem and to the temple then gold and frankincense work just fine.  So, why myrrh?  It was certainly very expensive stuff, and used only by the very well-to-do.  But hardly a typical present for a new-born, not even a royal one, whose doting parents generally wouldn’t be too pleased to get embalming supplies in the baby shower.  Matthew, the Bible experts tell us, is writing his narrative with a copy of Mark’s gospel open in front of him, in some places he is using the earliest gospel as a source and in other places just as an inspiration, and what Mark tells us about myrrh is that rather a lot of it is going to get used in preparing Jesus body for his burial.  Matthew, in other words, is telling us right up front what to expect if we keep reading his story.  A king, sort of, but not one that Herod would be too pleased about.  A priest, sort of, but not one who the Temple authorities are going to be too pleased about.  A prophet, absolutely.  Prophets know all about offending kings and priests, and they know all about premature funerals.

So, what does all this have to do with us?  We know how the story ends, so why do we need to think about the epiphany of the wise men, the “missed it by that much!” moment that turns into an “aha!” moment?  One reason, I suspect, is because the church has been stopping off in Jerusalem for over 2,000 years, that we continue to miss Bethlehem by that much, that we continue to mix up the claims of Jesus of Nazareth with the self-serving claims of power elites, the claims of nationalism and capitalism and consumerism.  That for too much of its history the church has been an ally rather than a critic of the status quo, being a Christian has been a comfortable option for the middle class.  But ultimately, I think, because we need to listen to the punch-line of the story: “they returned home by a different way”.

The magoi have got what they came for, after all.  They have encountered the alternative visions of power, the alternative kingships of Herod and Jesus, and they have correctly identified which one comes from God.  They have given the gifts that reveal who Jesus is, and they themselves have been changed.  And so they understand the need to return home by a different route.  On one level it’s just a narrative device to tell us how Herod’s nasty plans are foiled.  On a deeper level, it’s about knowing that we ourselves can’t stay the same, once we have encountered the differentness of God.  If these are God’s priorities, then what are ours?  If God critiques worldly definitions of success by being born, not at the heart of power but on the margins of weakness, then what does that say about how I live?

On the personal level, I think, the story says to us, ‘it doesn’t matter what wrong turns you took on the way.  But now that you’re here, what has to change?’


[1] R. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Doubleday, New York, 1999; pp. 170, 171, 187.  Also Num 24.17.