Five years ago, during my pilgrimage to Israel, I found myself asking what it means to be Jewish. I asked this question in light of the modern State of Israel which claims to be a Jewish state. From my naïve perspective at the time, I assumed this meant that those who claimed Israeli citizenship practiced some form of modern day adherence to Torah . Based on what I was told, this is not so, once one moves beyond Jerusalem, Israel is as secular as the United States with many of its citizens claiming to be Jewish with no real religious affiliation. So I then had to ask, is Judaism a form of national identity, like being American, or Italian. And the answer I found was yes and no. Among the Zionists the answer is clearly yes, but there are many practicing Jews today who hold almost no connection or affinity for the State of Israel. I then had to ask, is being Jewish an ethnic identity, and a cultural heritage in which one is born. And finally is being Jewish a religious identity that one can obtain by subscribing to a certain set of beliefs and practices, in the same way we are Christians due to our belief in who Jesus of Nazareth is? As I traveled through Israel and kept asking these questions in light of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict the answer I kept coming up with was yes to all of the above and no to all of the above.
Our understanding of what it means to be a Jew today is far more complicated than it was in Jesus times. In the time of Jesus and St. Paul, in order to be considered a Jew you were both Jewish by birth right, religious practice and, through identifying with the land of Israel and Judah. Back then, being Jewish was clear and precise,so much so, the Samaritans, although they could claim an ethnic birthright to being Jewish their practices were not deemed pure by the members of the Temple Aristocracy, and therefore they were not afforded the rights of Judaism in Jesus day.
From Paul’s pre-conversion stand point, being Jewish by both birth and practice was important because it was only through the combination of these two avenues could one be found righteous and eligible for the protection and care of the God of Israel, Yahweh. To our modern ears, this understanding sounds narrow, however, in a polytheistic world, this was the norm. Much like the patron saints of medieval Europe, every city state had their own God to whom they worshipped and paid homage and every ruler was perceived to be divine on some level.
This is what makes Mathew’s inclusion of the Magi’s visit significant. In a Gospel written for a primarily Jewish congregation, a Gospel which begins with the genealogy of Jesus to prove he was of Davidic lineage, the lineage necessary to be the hoped for messiah, Matthew then tells his audience and the world that this young Davidic king, is no ordinary king, he is not just the king and Savior of the Jews but the savior of all the peoples of the world. This is why the three magi have traditionally been portrayed as Black, White and Asian, they are meant to represent all races of humanity.
Seventy years later, the newly converted Pharisee, Saul, now Paul, will hear the story of the Magi along with other stories of Jesus reaching out to the impure and the untouchable of his world and take these stories to heart. A few years later, Paul will leave the comfort and safety of the Jewish world and bring the Gospel to the foreign world of the Gentiles. To the Church in Ephesus he will write what only a few years earlier would have been words of scandal and possibly even blasphemy, “That is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”
Because Matthew chose to tell of three men from the east visiting and paying homage to the Christ child, it became possible for Paul to declare Gentiles and all humanity fellow heirs of Israel. This simple visit made it possible for Paul to write in his letter to the Galatians, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ.” And finally centuries later Christians everywhere will sing, “in Christ there is no east or west, there is no north or south.”
Sadly, it seems, humanity has failed to accept the enormity of what the Magi’s visit means. Throughout the centuries humanity has continued to artificially subdivide itself with one group declaring its dominance over others. We fail to accept each other as potential heirs of God. We fail to recognize that in God’s eyes we are as equal with our neighbors next door as we are with the person begging on the streets. In many ways we have failed to be like Mary who opened her door and her heart to what the Magi came to offer.
At the beginning of the Christmas season, our reading from Luke tells us Mary gave birth in a stable because there was no room at the inn. On a metaphorical level we are asked if we are willing and able to make room for the Holy Family in our hearts and souls. As we move beyond Christmas, Matthew asks us if we are willing to open our doors and our homes to the Magi, strangers from the east, by opening our hearts and churches to the stranger and the disenfranchised of this world. Matthew challenges to ask if we are willing to invite the one who is different from ourselves to join us at our table.
In the Book Genesis, there is the story of Abraham entertaining three strangers beneath the late day sun. These were strangers he saw far off in the distance and invited them to eat at his table. As the three men left Abraham’s table, Abraham is suddenly aware that the three men were Angels sent by God. In the story of the Magi, the Magi are three men sent by God, while seeking to find God in the form of a small child. They are three strangers who in the end are received by God with open arms.
On most Sundays when we have visitors in our midst, as a congregation we declare how everyone is welcomed to receive communion at our rail. Each Sunday we never know if we are entertaining angels among us, or feeding those who are seeking the divine embrace though us. While we may not know who it is we are called to entertain on a given Sunday, what we do know, whether angels, or magi, or a random person off the street, they are fellow heirs of God. . . .like you. . . .and me, seeking to be embraced by the Divine.