The “Wise” Men as Failed Culture Crossers

The Original Text

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east [or when it rose] and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,/are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,/for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east [or when it rose] went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another way.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,/Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,/because they are no more.”

Matthew 2:1 – 18

This passage is found only in Matthew, not in any of the other Gospels.

Notice, if you didn’t already, that it does not say how many Magi there were; they are just plural. It also doesn’t say that the Magi came to the stable, but references a “house.” Given other clues in the text, this incident could have happened as much as two years after Jesus’ birth. Apparently Joseph and Mary had been forced to stay on in Bethlehem for some time. (This shouldn’t surprise anybody who has ever had to deal with a large bureaucracy.) Apparently the housing situation in Bethlehem had improved enough that they had either found a room to rent, or a relative to stay with.

The following is a re-write of a meditation on the Magi that I once wrote for a church newsletter. The original title was “The Wise Men as Failed Missionaries,” but I think their experience can apply equally well to many kinds of culture crossing, including culture crossing for research, medical work, or the Peace Corps, any time we are attempting to do no harm.

The Perils of Crossing Cultures

I did not see The King and I until after I had already lived in Asia. But I had heard about how great it was, and had somehow gotten the impression that it was a fun, lighthearted musical. When I finally saw it for the first time, I was shocked by how darkly and accurately it portrays the meeting of two cultures. The cost, to both Anna and King, is very high indeed, for what seems like a small payoff in mutual understanding.

There is one moment of the kind that we always hope for in cross-cultural exchanges. The King is making Anna show him how to ballroom dance. This romantic activity, so typical of Anna’s culture, is one that she loves, and that could never happen in the culture of Siam. She has been talking about it, and now the king wants to learn. They dance across the stage, with the king concentrating very hard on this new experience. “Again!” he commands. They dance again.

And then, right in the midst of this wonderful moment, everything crashes down. The concubine Tuptim is dragged before the king. She has been caught running away to join her lover. The king has her whipped; Anna tries to intervene; Tuptim is dragged off to her death, and the relationship between Anna and the king is irreparably broken.

Anna brings British values to the king of Siam, and those values literally kill him.

That is how cross-cultural exchanges often go.

The Wise Men, unfortunately, are no exception to this rule. Let’s call it the Law of Unintended Consequences. When people go into another culture, however good their intentions, there is inevitably much they don’t know. So the Wise Men show up quite innocently in Jerusalem and start asking “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?”

They did know a few important facts about Jesus – His office, His age (newborn), and that He ought to be worshipped. What they didn’t know was that Jesus had not been born into the current royal family, or that Judea was a political powder keg. They also had no idea how evil Herod was. It’s amazing – expatriats are constantly amazed – at how the same person can know an awful lot about some things, yet be completely clueless about other, equally important, equally obvious things. This is a pitfall of crossing cultures.

So, in they go – clumsily, conspicuously, perhaps with a large entourage. Foreigners, especially wealthy foreigners, always stand out. They are called before the king. And he is actually able to help them! His scholars point them to Bethlehem. He tells them a pack of lies about wanting to worship Jesus too, and they may sense they are being manipulated, but they are not sure exactly how. Everything is so different from what they expected.

Against all the odds, they do succeed in their mission. They find the newborn king. They worship Him. They deliver their carefully guarded gifts. They even manage not to go back and tell Herod where He is (by the grace of God).

They go back to their own country, thrilled to have met Him … and rightly so. They had gotten to meet the Messiah. It was the experience of a lifetime, and they had sacrificed a lot for it. I realize that I have made these godly men sound a bit foolish in the summary above. Of course they were not fools. I am just trying to highlight that, on a human level, their visit caused a lot more problems than it solved. The Bible hints – and I hope it is true – that they had no idea of the way events were unraveling in their wake.

For the story goes on. Herod does not care that he cannot find the exact child. It does not bother him to murder all the male babies in an entire town. And it does not bother his soldiers to obey him. The holy family, who thought they would just be in Bethlehem a while for the census, now are refugees in another country. And other families in Bethlehem fare much worse. Horror and tragedy! All triggered by the wise men.

If we were the wise men, and if we knew the whole story, we would be dismayed. We would throw up our hands and say, “What a horrible mess we’ve created!” Perhaps we would say, as Anna said, “I wish we had never come.” And then perhaps we would ask, “Have we done any good at all here?”

I think many culture-crossing, would-be do-gooders ask themselves that same question. “Am I doing any good? Does the small amount of good I am able to do, come close to outweighing the harm that I accidentally do? Is the small amount of good that I sometimes, by the grace of God, do, proportionate to the huge amounts of time, effort, and money that I and others have invested in order to get me here?”

I don’t have answers to these questions. In the case of the wise men, it is dangerous to weigh and compare, because soon we will find ourselves weighing and comparing the incarnation of God, and the brutal death of dozens of babies and toddlers. To what can we compare either of those events? They are not currencies that can be converted with some kind of exchange rate. There is no scale for these things. It is wrong to compare. So perhaps it is wrong to ask these questions.

I do know one thing. Despite how it might seem to our human wisdom, the wise men were supposed to be there. Both the slaughter of the innocents and the holy family’s flight to Egypt were foretold in prophecy. And God sent the star to guide the Magi to Bethlehem. They were supposed to go; they had a role to play. In their case, their role was worship. God did not send them there to change the world or to do some good with their wealth and their wisdom. He sent them to worship. And they did it, and they have gone down in history, and so have the innocent toddlers whom Herod slaughtered. Laments are sung for them, still to this day.

In that fabulous tome about culture crossing, The Poisonwood Bible, missionary kid Leah, who up to that point has been all in on her father’s attempts to transform the local culture, has a low moment when she realizes that her family, by their presence there, is putting a lot of burdens on the community but contributing nothing. “We should not have come here,” she intones. And she presses Anatole, whom she will eventually marry: “Should we have come here? Yes or no.” And Anatole says, “You should not have come here, but now you are here, so you should be here. There are more words in the world than yes and no.” I can’t think of a better way to describe usually disastrous cultural exchanges.

4 thoughts on “The “Wise” Men as Failed Culture Crossers

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