Powerless Love and Loveless Power – Epiphany, 2001
By Charles Rush
January 7, 2001
Matthew 2: 1-12, 16, 17
star over Bethlehem has produced quite a body of speculation. You may know that
in 1603, Jupiter and Saturn crossed paths, creating the appearance of a luminous
star in the sky. That is the sort of event that would have gotten the attention
of the learned priests in the ancient world, who amassed an amazing body of
knowledge about the heavens and looked to them for signs that they thought came
from the Gods. In 1603, Johannes Kepler, the reputable astronomer did some
calculations to determine other times in history that Jupiter and Saturn might
have so aligned. Bingo, he hit upon the year 7 b.c. and popular speculation
ever since has been that this might have been the event that drove our Magi on
there are a couple problems with this approach. The first is that Jesus was
probably not born until 4 b.c. from what we can adduce from the known dates of
the Roman Governor’s listed in Luke. Second, the word used for this star is not
simply one of the astral bodies in the heavens, it is also a kind of aura that
the priests and diviners followed in the ancient world. It is associated with
point of this story is not grasped if you attempt to picture it literally.
Rather, it is a thematic precursor that embodies the central themes that will
define the life and ministry of Jesus.
point is this. The priests and Levites in Jerusalem are oblivious to the star
that the pagan diviners are following. Neither do they bother to follow with
the pagan wise men when they are told of a star that announces the coming of
the Messiah. Like some academic theologians I know, they prefer their faith in
vitro (under glass) rather than in vivo (in life).[i]
They don’t get it now, they won’t get it when they meet Jesus, they won’t get
it at the end of his life. Representing all of us, particularly us clerical
types, they are just caught up enough in church work that they miss the work of
the Roman rulers, represent all of us in our sense of entitlement and power.
Upon hearing the good news, we are told that king Herod, and all of Jerusalem
(that would be us), were alarmed. Not overwhelmed with joy but alarmed because
we presume that we will lose some of our privilege. The response of King Herod
is one of calculated cunning. Yes, he says, he would very much like to see the
child who would become king of the Jews. And when the wise men return another
way, he orders the execution of all children in the region to be murdered under
the age of two. That is realpolitik. Don’t you wonder what kind of men get
called out for that kind of duty? They had no shortage of them in the Roman
legion. And the point is sharp. The story underscores the ironic juxtaposition
between powerless love and loveless power. When we had unmitigated goodness in
our midst, we killed it. And why is it that we are like that? That is the
central question that the Christ Child will pose for us at the end of the
juxtaposition in our story is between power and authority. In the beginning of
Luke’s gospel, the introduction to the life of Jesus begins with some
historical orientation in light of those in power. We read, “In the fifteenth
year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius (the big power), when Pontius Pilate was
governor of Judea (our power), and
Herod was ruler of Galilea (petty potentate we all suffer under)… during the
priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas (religious power added to political power).
2000 years later, we still understand this immediately. We would still say,
“when Clinton was President of the United States and Whitman was Governor of
New Jersey and Mayor Long ruled Summit… sort of loses some force their towards
the end doesn’t it.
we get this wonderful line, “the word of God came to John the Baptist in the
wilderness (Lk. 3:1-2). On the one hand you have the movers and shakers,
what today we call the players on the stage of world history. They rule by
virtue of aggression, cunning and manipulation. On the other hand, you have
those that are vested with genuine authority by virtue of the fact that God
happens to have chosen them for a mission. Integrity, in the long run, has a
self-validating quality to it that triumphs over mere aggression and manipulation.
Today, nearly half the world population can tell you something about Jesus,
Mary, and John the Baptist- all ordinary peasants vested with the genuine
authority of God. The only reason anybody remembers anything about Tiberius,
Pontius Pilate, or Herod is because of Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist. How
the mighty have fallen. How God reverses the values of our world.
William Sloane Coffin has noted, “it helps to see the story as a small
masterpiece presented to Jesus by his disciple, the erstwhile tax-collector,
who, in following Jesus, left everything behind except his quill. Think of the
truths that Matthew manages to express in twelve short verses: the truth that
people come from afar and by many ways to worship Christ; the truth that no
place is too lowly to kneel in; the truth that as knowledge grows, so too must
reverence and love, else doubts will paralyze the mind and much learning dry
the heart. And what truth is symbolized in that star over Bethlehem, God’s sign
set high in the mystery of the night sky? Doesn’t its light beckon to our
deepest longing, which finally is not for mother or father, grocer or lover,
but for savior- a longing that can be answered only from beyond our earth? And
yet a sign is only that- a sign and the choice remains ours to journey towards
it or to stay stuck wherever we are.”[iii]
challenge for us too, is to dedicate ourselves to the Christ Child, in all our
manifold dimensions. These dimensions are symbolized in the gifts that the Magi
bring and lay at the feet of the Christ child.
first is the gift of gold. Then, as now, gold symbolizes our earthly power. It
is wrapped up in our national budgets, our business budgets, our family
budgets. I loved that bumper sticker from the 70’s, usually featured on the
bumpers of old Volvo’s, that read, “Won’t it be a great day when day care
centers have all the money they need and the Armed forces have bake sales.”
Last year, one of the economists in the congregation mailed me a copy of the
1999 Federal budget, all three volumes, if memory serves. It is a sobering read
and more citizens ought to take a look at it. You tell a lot about our actual
priorities versus the ones we too loudly proclaim by taking a dispassionate
look at how much/how little we devote to a cause.
our family budgets. It would be interesting, albeit embarrassing, for all of us
to have a public review of how we spent our money last year, presuming that
every penny could actually be accounted for. In many cases, no one would be
more surprised than ourselves. If we surveyed everyone in our town, I suspect
we would have a lot of people saying, “My God, that is a lot of vacation… Cars
are really expensive… Who drank all that liquor?” I think we’d have a lot of
wives saying, “you know Ebenzer, even with your Midas wardrobe, we can spare a
few more coppers for the Tiny Tim program for disadvantaged youth.”
live in a world of inexact rewards and perq’s. When I started teaching at
Rutgers University, I was disappointed to learn that starting salaries on the
faculty were slightly lower than the workers that take up tolls on the Garden
State Parkway. People say that there are rewards to teaching that money can’t
buy and it is true. But, if we were forced to live on their salary for a couple
months, they’d have their salaries doubled forthwith.
was talking with the one of the top executives of an advertising firm in New
York. He told me that he had recently requested a review of starting salaries
for new hires. The reason for his sudden change of heart? His daughter, fresh
out of college, had just started working for one of their competitors and dear
old Dad was subsidizing the rent for a place she was sharing with 3 other
people because she wasn’t making enough to live on. We could give the Christ
Child the gift of our budgets and our priorities.
the Magi brought the Christ Child the gift of Frankincense. The gift of
Frankincense has come to symbolize our inner thoughts. I recently saw the new
Mel Gibson movie What Women Want. The movie has an interesting premise.
Mel plays a guy that thinks he is God’s gift to women. He is the office flirt,
the coffee shop flirt, the flirt all day long in fact. One day he is zapped and
suddenly he hears women’s thoughts. He drops a bad pickup line. He sees them
smile back politely and think “Creep”. Every time he violates their safety
zone, he hears them have anxiety attacks. He has this epiphany in the process.
Mel is like almost all men and most people. Heretofore, he had only looked at
the world in terms of what it could give him. People only came into focus for
him when they could meet one of his needs. Outside he was a big burly man.
Inside, just a needy kid.
With his change of heart, he
becomes aware that the object of successful living is to meet the needs of all
these other people around him. And if you do, people warm up to you in a
genuine, deep, very satisfying sort of way.
I wonder what the world would think if they could all hear your
interior thoughts for just one day? On one level, we have to have a private
self and a public self. But, how much of your day is spent saying one thing
while you are thinking or feeling something very different. Jesus said,
“blessed are those who are pure in heart”, and part of what that means is
‘blessed are those who act out who they really are.’ What you see is what you
get. Spiritually speaking, that is the road to authentic integrity.
Would that we were able to
see others for who they really were… would that we could see everyone we meet
as someone whose needs we can meet. Someone wrote that during his second month
of law school, the professor gave them a pop quiz. “I was a conscientious
student and had breezed through the questions, until I read the last one: What
is the name of the woman who cleans the school?” Surely this was some kind of
joke. I had seen the cleaning woman several times. She was tall, dark-haired
and in her 50’s bout how would I know her name? I handed in my paper and left
the last question blank.
before class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward
our quiz grade. “Absolutely,” said the professor. “In your careers, you will
meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care,
even if all you do is smile and say hello. I’ve never forgotten that lesson. I
also learned her name was Dorothy.
could stand to give the Christ Child the gift of frankincense, the gift of
integrity in our inner thoughts.
gift of myrrh. Myrrh is used for embalming. It is associated with death. We
need to come to terms with death and God. Job raised the question that we all
raise at some point in our life. Why is their unjust suffering? If God allows
horrible things to happen to people even though they are pious and spiritual in
every way, then what good is God? And if the world is run by someone that
allows such awful things to happen, do we really want to follow them anyway?
Good questions. My confirmation class raises them every year. You may recall
that at the end Job, these questions are met with divine silence. God says
nothing, except ‘where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?’
It is the kind of response you would give a teenager and in some important
sense, our questions to God are also adolescent. They are adolescent to the extent
that we look to God as the dispenser of blessing, the great Santa Claus in the
sky. They are adolescent to the extent that we presume that you can get through
life, that you are entitled to go through life without any serious harm coming
your way, without any suffering or tragedy. Where did we get this idea? It is
adolescent to the extent that we think a life without suffering is a better
life. A life without suffering is only easier, cushier, but it is not more
Christ child points us in the direction for an answer to our questions about
death. We have to embrace death as part of living. And Jesus showed us that
when we experience unjust suffering and tragedy, that is not something God is
putting us through but it is something God participates with us. God identifies
with our suffering and pain.
Christ child suggested to us that even unjust suffering and tragedy can be
redemptive. That doesn’t make it any less unjust or tragic. But even these things
can be redeemed and God wants to redeem them too. No, we could stand to give
the Christ child the gift of myrrh, coming to terms with our dying, living a
life with eternal values that transcend death. That would be a great gift of
pagan Magi got it, without tradition, scripture, or culture to guide them. And
that means there is hope for us too. Let us follow their lead and bring our
gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the feet of the Christ child, kneel in
that humble dwelling, and dedicate our lives to a fuller way of living.