This passage occurs in both the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary during the Christmas season.
Summary: Don't get hung up on the meaning of the word magi and who
they were. The issue at stake is: Who is Jesus? The epiphany
of our Lord has begun. He is Messiah, King, and Shepherd.
Deconstruct the titles and gifts as you will; a good sermon
on this text should focus on Christ's identity. Especially interesting
are the parallels between this passage of Matthew 2 and the later scenes with
Herod, the chief priests, the scribes and Pilate.
μαγοι ("magoi", meaning "magi", 2:1) as Liddell
Scott puts it: "one of the wise men in Persia who interpreted
dreams." They were probably not kings...but they do bring royal
gifts and are granted a royal audience. They were almost certainly not
Jews. Rather than fixate on their wealth or non-wealth, I think their
gentile status is a powerful point, especially in Matthew's Gospel, which spent
chapter 1 in a Jewish genealogy. Jesus is for everyone.
χριστος ("Christ", meaning "anointed", 2:4) This
is a crucial term in Matthew's Gospel. Jesus is the anointed one,
prophesied about for centuries in Judaism. Matthew uses the term
three times in chapter 1. It will be featured in Peter's confession of
faith (16:16) and will later be used in Jesus' suffering and trial
(various points in 26 and 27). In fact,
almost all of these titles here for Jesus show up again in Jesus passion:
King of the Jews: βασιλευς των Ιουδαίων (2:2) Later in Jesus's
life, this will be the accusation made against him, that he claims
this (Matthew 27:11); finally, this will be put on Jesus cross (27:37). It is worth asking -- should only Herod be
scared? No. All of Jerusalem. Why? There
is a political-historical reason, but I think a spiritual reason we can all
connect with -- what does it actually mean if Christ is king of our life?
Leader: ηγούμενος (2:6) who shepherds (ποιμαινω, 2:6) Jesus
will tell the people that the Shepherd is going to be struck down (26:31)
In some ways, you could probably match up the gifts of the magi with
these various offices (gold for the king; incense for the Messiah; myrrh for
the shepherd-leader.) My point is not to pin down a one-to-one
comparison, but rather to say that the text invites one to think about WHO is
Jesus Christ. Hence this is an epiphany text, a revelation of who Christ
is. Like all good texts about Christ's identity, it points toward his
suffering and death as well. A good
sermon on this passage invites the reader to consider who Christ is as well.
Two little morsels:
θησαυρος ("thesaurus" meaning treasure, 2:11) No great
analysis, just a lovely word to know in Greek/English.
λιβανον ("Lebanon" meaning incense, 2:11) The word for
incense comes from cedar, because its bark provided the incense. This is
especially funny to me because I lived in Lebanon County where people refer to
Lebanon as a type of bologna made here.