Were the Wise Men wise?

The most brilliant and unusual Christmas card we received this year was a ‘Where’s Wally’.  For the benefit of those who haven’t been stuck in a waiting room recently, Wally is a tiny cartoon figure who hides amongst hundreds of other similar looking cartoon figures populating a complex landscape. Finding a clean shaven chap wearing a Santa hat amongst a hundred inch high bearded Santas is surprisingly difficult.

That Christmas card came to mind as I thought about today’s gospel. It’s traditionally known as the story of the three wise men, but finding wisdom in this story is a bit like looking for Wally. The wisdom is in there somewhere, but there are a lot of other things that look a bit like it. This passage gives us plenty of snapshots of worldly, flawed, wisdom, and in doing so it asks us: what is true wisdom?

The Magi are the scientists of their day. They track the movement of the stars and the course of the planets, they can predict the phases of the moon and the date of eclipses. But they are also steeped in mystical arts, so when a strange new star appears, they believe it has a meaning: it announces the birth of a Jewish king. V.2b.

God uses this star to draw them to the Messiah. We can see the Magi as an example that science and art can work together with faith. The mediaevals called theology the ‘Queen of the Sciences’. I never really understood that as a student biologist. How could theology shed light on genetics or molecular biology? Surely it was better for religion to keep to its own area and not interfere with scientific enquiry?

I now understand that worldly wisdom finds its true glory and its best place when working with the Creator. Bad science is arrogant, murders to dissect and manipulates the natural world. Good science helps us to be humble. A true appreciation of nature should foster wonder in us, and a loving stewardship of creation. Guided by sound ethics, good science can improve the world. Science and faith can work together.

The Magi hint at this, but rather like an Oxford don trying to park a car, when it comes to practical matters the Magi are less assured. They show a real naïveté when up against the cunning of Herod.

This puppet King is as crafty as a fox. Perceiving a threat to his throne, he finds out where the Messiah is to be born. He then deceives the wise men, pretending to be open and wishing to pay homage when in reality he is a vicious lion ready to pounce and kill. His ruthlessness in eliminating a potential threat, his sly manoeuvring to achieve his aim, portray a cynical, brutal form of wisdom. The self-centred wisdom of a dictator. Herod shows an earthly wisdom of which Macchiavelli might have approved, but which does not show the fear of the Lord.

Leaders are often told that leadership involves tough choices. That is true. Maybe a company has to make some workers redundant if the jobs of the rest are to be saved. Political leaders still make decisions of life or death. We must pray for them, for the burden of such decision making must be agonising. And if it isn’t agonising, if it isn’t painful to dismiss someone or decide healthcare priorities, then something has gone wrong. Compassion and mercy must be part of those decisions, and that applies for those of us who are employers just as much as for the government.

The rhetoric of ‘The buck stops here’ can be used to excuse brutality or justify personal advancement. The tough exception can easily become the rule, which is why those of us who make hard decisions must always remember the human cost of them. It’s when you’re hardened against the cost that the decisions are made too easily and become bad.

If Herod’s wisdom is not a good example, perhaps we will do better with the priests. And yes, they know many things. They know helpful things, they know the way to the Messiah. In v.5 they advise: ‘he will be born in Bethlehem of Judea’. They can even give chapter and verse, with a quotation from the prophet. But they don’t go!

Every Epiphany I am still incredulous! I’ve been preaching for 15 years and every time it still stops me short. These men knew where the Messiah was to be born, they had been studying the Scriptures all their lives and supposedly waiting for this moment. And yet when it comes, they do not go. They’re not interested in seeing what God is doing, or if they are sceptical they lack even the intellectual curiosity to go and see. Would any of us stay with our books, hearing what they’ve just heard? Please don’t say yes! Lord have mercy if we ever become like them!

The chief priests and scribes of the people remind us that knowledge is not the same as wisdom. Knowledge is about facts, wisdom is what you do with it. It’s been shown that people’s way of thinking is actually changing because of the internet. We are getting better at surfing – picking up information, absorbing it, searching for nuggets. We are getting much worse at analysis – thinking, making our own minds up, dealing with complex arguments.

And even if we do take more time to ponder something, knowing the right answer is still not wisdom. In the Bible, wisdom is about doing the right thing, it is putting that knowledge into action. Although the priests knew the truth, they lacked wisdom because they did not act upon it. The sad case of the priests challenges us: are there things we know we should do that we do not? How far do our actions match up to our beliefs? Are we wise, or just knowledgeable?

To find true human wisdom, we have to go beyond the passage set for today. In verses 13-15 the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, warning him to flee because of Herod. Joseph is wise, for he hears the voice of the Lord, and when he does, he instantly acts upon it.

We might guess at the previous life of prayer which enabled Joseph to recognise God’s voice, or the habitual obedience to God’s word which enabled him to drop everything and go.

Joseph also points us towards the wisdom of God. For this is a fascinating passage, full of echoes from the Old Testament. A man named Joseph hears God’s word through dreams, and travels down to Egypt – where have we heard that before? It’s parallel to the story of Joseph with his coat of many colours – he too heard God in dreams and ended up in the land of the Pharoahs. And then like the Old Testament people of Israel at the Exodus, Jesus will come out of Egypt, so that as it says in verse 15 ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’.

What does this similarity mean? In this passage there are moments of direct prophecy, like the prediction of the Messiah’s birthplace, and also moments which seem to be more like echoes of what has happened before. A sort of symbolic pattern, pointing to deeper meanings. It’s important because the same principle carries forward into the future. So the coming of the wise men fulfils the prophecy that Gentiles would come and worship, and of course we will all have heard of the symbolic significance of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

I do not believe these resonances are accidental. It is as if the story is suggesting that the wisdom of God continues. Despite the contingencies, the accidents of history, human cruelty or folly, somehow despite all this God’s plan carries on and is not derailed. God’s mysterious wisdom somehow weaves a path, works despite, maybe even through the mess, to bring about his purposes.

For me that is the most encouraging thing about this gospel, that God in his wisdom is in control. And that therefore true human wisdom lies in the fear of the Lord – the willingness to be open to him and to align oneself with what he is doing. This passage challenges me on the limitations of human wisdom – while affirming our abilities it places a definite boundary on what we can achieve. And it reassures me that, though I get things wrong and cannot discern the future, yet true wisdom lies in following Christ, being open to his guidance, and allowing God’s plan to be fulfilled through us.

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