For The Someday Book

Sermon Sapling: Epiphany A — The Treasure Guys

Posted on: January 1, 2011

Again because this post didn’t happen until late in the week, this is closer to my final manuscript for the sermon than a sermon sapling. Hopefully all will be back on track next week.

Highlighted Passage: Matthew 2:1-12

Wise Men by Viviana Vazquez Santiago

What’s the first thing you think of when you think of the three wise men? I’m guessing that the top three, in no particular order, are the camels, the star, and the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are usually right there in our minds when we think of the wise men.

The travelers from the east described in Matthew’s Gospel, be they wise men or magi or astrologers, are linked forever in our minds with the gifts they brought to the Christ child. We even assume that there are three of them simply because they had three gifts. “We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar.” When we think of the wise men, we think about them bearing gifts. We imagine their journey’s purpose to deliver those gifts to baby Jesus, as a sign of his spiritual importance beyond simply the Jewish community of Palestine.

Last year, B was playing with our nativity, and I wrote about some of the games he played. One involved arranging and rearranging the various figures, announcing the lineup each time: “Sheep, shepherd, mouse, mouse, treasure guy, Mary, camel, treasure guy, horse, cow, Baby Jesus, treasure guy.” Another involved the baby Jesus shouting to those treasure guys, “Hey wise men! Come bring me my presents!” Even a two-year-old (at the time) knows that the wise men are all about the presents.

But what if, originally, they weren’t?

By originally, I don’t mean before 2000 years of tradition got hold of them. I don’t even mean before Matthew crafted the story and added his own layers of interpretation. I mean really, really originally—like before they even set out on their journey to follow the star.

I read the scripture this year, and I noticed something different. And it made me wonder about that “originally.” What if, originally, the wise men didn’t set out to bring him presents? What if, originally, they just came to pay homage, and the presents were a spontaneous gesture?

Wise Men Journeying to Bethlehem by James Tissot

Look closely again at the scripture. Three times in this short passage from Matthew, we are told that the wise men come to Jesus to “pay him homage.” They tell King Herod they have traveled to “pay him homage.” King Herod responds asking for information so that he can “pay homage” too. Then, when they arrive, they “knelt down and paid him homage.” It was clearly what they came to do, the purpose of their journey and their visit.

Then comes the turn of phrase that caught my eye this time around. In the NRSV it says, “Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” I checked a bunch of other versions, and it’s pretty much the same. They came to pay him homage, and then they opened their treasure chests and started to offer him gifts. And they were their treasure chests that they opened–not gifts they had brought with them. So what if they originally just came to bow down and pay Christ homage, and the gifts they gave were not a part of the plan, but instead a generous response to their overwhelming encounter with him?

Adoration of the Magi by Bartolome Esteban Murillo

Before I took this theory too far, I wanted to check it out. After all, maybe “paying homage” somehow implied that presents were involved, that giving honor meant giving gifts. So I did a little research into the Greek. The word that is translated as “pay homage” is the Greek proskuneo, (Strong’s G4352). It is usually translated as paying homage, bowing down or prostrating oneself. It comes from two other Greek words: pros, meaning toward or in the direction of, and kuneo, which is a derivative of the noun “dog,” and means to kiss, like a dog licking a master’s hand. A bit strange, perhaps, but proskuneo, paying homage, seems to say a lot about dog-like devotion, and little or nothing about giving gifts.

So Matthew’s word about “paying homage” does not seem to indicate that gifts were implied as part of that worship. And no one knows exactly what happened, or even if it happened, apart from Matthew’s account to us. I think that gives us the freedom to imagine it a little bit differently than we usually do, simply because there is no reason not to. So let’s think about this: what if the wise men weren’t originally treasure guys at all? What if they just came to worship, and they were so moved that they could not help but respond with generosity?

Hear Matthew’s words again:

When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

What if the wise men were more like curious seekers than gift-bearers? Imagine them filled with glee at finding the place where the star had led. They just knew it was going to be an important king, a person who would forever change the world, and they wanted to be the first to see. When they got inside that humble abode and discovered nothing more than a babe in arms, they were humbled and moved. They did more than pay obligatory homage—they knelt down before him, bowed and bent their hearts, and worshipped. And they were transformed by the experience.

The glory of his presence contrasted with the poverty of his circumstances. The compelling power of the stars joined to the humility of a single human life. They had encountered the living Christ, and it was like nothing they had ever experienced before. They saw themselves and their whole lives in a new way. They wanted the glory of their treasures to uplift the poverty of his circumstances. They wanted to join their single human lives to the compelling power of the stars. They wanted to respond.

Imagine them stepping out of that stable, or hut, or small family home, filled with awe of the glory of God. They see their camels, their belongings, their treasures awaiting them—and they know that nothing they own matters any more. Their hearts are moved, and they unlock their treasure chests to give it all away.

  • Out comes the gold they had brought, gold that paid for their travels, gold that was to be invested in goods to barter upon their return, gold that was supposed to secure them a safe passage home. Gold and all the things it would buy no longer mattered anymore. What mattered was doing anything they could to support the life of this child.
  • Out comes the frankincense they had purchased along the way and planned to take home with them, an indulgent gift for family back home and a sign of the wealth of their houses. Proving their wealth to the neighbors seemed ridiculous, after seeing the king born in a stable. They knew that the greatest gift they could bring their families was the story of this young child, nothing that could be bought.
  • Out comes the myrrh they had bought as funeral incense, so that when they and their families died, everyone would know their wealth. A strange gift for a baby, but the wise men knew they no longer needed an elaborate funeral to be remembered, that eternal life was not bought by the wealth of this world, but by sacrifices made toward the next one. Perhaps they even sensed, after their encounter with Herod and the warning dream, that this child’s death would be as important as his life.

Upon seeing Christ, they were overwhelmed with joy, and they opened their treasure chests, to present their wealth as a gift to the child.

Isn’t that what a true encounter with Christ is all about? Overwhelmed with the glory and generosity of our God, we bow down to worship, and we get up to give. Moved by the power and grace of Christ, we kneel down to worship, and we stand up to serve. We realize in the presence of the living God that the treasures that can be stored in chests, the gold and wealth we have accumulated and collected, belong in the service of God. The treasures of our time, the lives we have been given to live, are not for the pursuit of wealth or luxury or security or social standing—they also belong in the service of God. Even the treasures of our hearts, those things that cannot be held in boxes or explained in their power, yield to Christ’s will. A true homage sacrifices self to give to others.

Roman Nativity Figurines

Opening up our treasure chests is not easy, and it does not come naturally. But when we journey closer to Christ, like those wise men, we are transformed. We change from curious seekers and star followers into treasure guys, generous givers ready to offer all our treasures for the glory of God. And we join our single human lives  to the compelling power of the stars.

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3 Responses to "Sermon Sapling: Epiphany A — The Treasure Guys"

Lovely, powerful, inspiring reflections that make us one to catch the energy and joy of the Magi.

Actually, I think I wanted to say “want” to catch the energy!

Thanks, Nick. The intent was clear, even if the words weren’t! Thanks for stopping by.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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