Bible Study 12.12.11, 12.15.11,12.18.11 For Worship 1.1.12Posted: December 5, 2011
Bible Study 12.12.11, 12.15.11, 12.18.11 For Worship 1.1.12
Matthew 2:1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying,
2 “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”
3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;
4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.'”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared;
8 and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”
9 When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy;
11 and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
The Star of Bethlehem is a favorite show at planetariums at Christmas Time. There are several possible explanations offered for a showy heavenly display about 7-4 B.C. (the time most probable for the birth of Jesus.) The purpose of the story is to match the claims of heavenly events associated with the career of Julius and Augustus Caesar. Suetonius claimed a special star appeared at the time of the birth of Augustus, and a comet appeared in the sky at the death of Julius Caesar prompting the Roman Senate to declare Caesar a God, and then by implication Octavian his heir styled himself “the Son of God.”
In claiming a visit from Magi from Persia, Matthew was going Suetonius one better. Augustus had merely had a few Roman astrologers claim an auspicious horoscope for Octavian, but the whole world recognized the authority of the Persian star gazers. Since the people of the day believed that the stars controlled human destiny, an important heavenly event was important for every great leader.
The Magi introduce the theme of the search for the divine child, a fairly common subject in human story telling. On the one hand there is the search of the Wisemen with the intention of honoring the child and fulfilling Old Testament prophecy a consistent theme in Matthew. Both, “Micah 5:2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. ” and “Isaiah 60:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. 3 And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.. Herod represents the search of evil to destroy the divine child. The film, “Willow,” captured this theme beautifully with the least likely protector of the child, a dwarf, out witting the forces of evil,” are prophecy historicized by Matthew’s story of the Magi.
Perhaps more important that the Star of Bethlehem is the way Matthew uses the Wisemen to weave Herod into the story. Herod the Great was a great builder. He built massive public works projects: the City of Caesarea, the Great Synagogue Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron, the great aqueducts of Jerusalem and Caesarea, the great Rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple project, the Winter Palace in Jericho, the fortress of Herodiom, the fortress of Masada. To support all of his building projects Herod taxed his subjects heavily on top of the taxes he had to levy to send to Rome. Herod was also a murderous butcher maintaining his power and control by killing countless individuals including his brother-in-law, his wife, two sons and a multitude of Israel’s finest citizens, not to mention countless peasants, who occasionally revolted against his taxes and his rule, since most of his Jewish subjects did not consider him to be a Jew. He was a harsh example of the excesses of Roman Rule.
Roman rule was a heavy handed form of commercialized civilization. Hunter gatherer tribes were fairly egalitarian communities. There was leadership in the group, and leaders were often accorded greater honor than followers. But the economic difference between leaders and followers was fairly small. Once humans invented agriculture, and an excess of production was developed, humans began to invent hierarchies that resulted in the appropriation of a disproportionate share of production to the leaders of the society often by means of violence or the threat of violence. Especially after the invention of money, excess production could be transported and stored over long distances and long periods of time, making the appropriation of wealth by a leadership class easier. By the time of the Roman Empire, as much as 60% of all production was going to support the relatively luxurious life styles of the elite, while the masses lived in abject poverty. Most residents in the Roman Empire were slaves or landless peasants who merely subsisted on the edge of starvation. Some of the same concerns are emerging in the Occupy Movement of the 21st century. During the era of the Robber Barons, vast inequalities of wealth developed as the world industrialized. During the first two-thirds of the 20th century, especially after the Great Depression, a more equitable distribution of income led to a consumer based prosperity. In the last third of the 20th century leading into the economic melt-down of the initial years of the 21st century a greater inequality of income has led to an economic stagnation that now threatens to impoverish the middle class of the industrialized nations. Strikes and economic struggle in the United States and Western Europe coupled with the threat to the economies of the Western Nations from runaway debt bring the miracle of consumer prosperity to an end, as the traditional hierarchy of wealth in civilization once again asserts itself, with the devaluation of labor and the shrinking value of wages.
The introduction of Herod in the Christmas Story helps to frame the story of Jesus in relationship to the oppression of the Roman Empire. Jesus was a carpenter, which meant he was part of the landless peasantry, the impoverished middleclass that had been pushed into subsistence having to depend on the sale of his increasingly devalued labor, in the commercialized agricultural economy of the Roman World as large estates were accumulated by a small wealthy landed aristocracy. The Temple in Jerusalem was part of the movement to push peasants off the land and consolidate large estates, because the records of land debt were kept in the Temple and the Temple authorities were actively involved in the foreclosure movement at the same time they failed to honor the clear scriptural and legal principal of the “jubilee,” periodic cancelation of debts from the Law of Moses. No wonder Jesus was in conflict with the Temple authorities, and they were involved in his death. Of course we should note that the Roman authorities were only too willing to carry out the execution of Jesus, since he posed a very clear threat to their rule, and the rule of the Temple authorities, who were collaborating with Roman rule. In the end the divine child is “found” and executed by Rome.
In the popular Christmas Carol “We Three Kings,” the death of Jesus is foreshadowed in the verse about myrrh: “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume. Breathes of life of gathering gloom. Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” The whole story of the three Kings with Herod searching for the divine child foreshadows the death of Jesus.
LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT
1. According to this text where were Mary and Joseph living at the time of the birth of Jesus?
2. Who was King in Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth?
3. How did Herod find out about the birth of a potential Messiah?
4. Where do the priests in Jerusalem suggest they should look for the birth place of the Messiah?
5. What prophecies were involved Matthew’s birth narrative?
6. According to Matthew how did the Wisemen find the birth place?
7. Where do the Wisemen find the Holy Family?
8. What gifts did the Wisemen present to the Christ Child?
9. How do the Wisemen know to return to their country?
LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US
1. Do you think the stars have any role in historical or divine events?
2. Do you think historical circumstances were at all important in the formation of the personality and character of Jesus?
3. How important is Herod in Matthew’s story?
4. Can you think of other stories where evil seeks to destroy a divine child?
5. Do you think Matthew wrote his story to fit passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, or do think Matthew’s story was a fulfillment of the scriptures?
6. Can you think of any stories that have been spawned by the story of the Magi? If so, what is your favorite?
7. What gift or gifts could you bring to the Christ child?
8. Can you think of any contemporary examples of a Herod?
9. Do you think jubilee could work in our world today?