Three Lost Kings by Robert Steiner

Three Lost Kings by Robert Steiner

The famous three astrologers from Persia, better known as ‘the three kings’, embarked on one of those journeys for which, in the words of Herman Hesse, one has to ‘be ready bravely and without remorse to find new light that old ties cannot give’ (from his poem ‘Stages’). The Christian calendar calls us to remember their life-changing journey as we move into a new year, but few are aware that these three explorers almost missed the light they set out to find.

Their arrival in Jerusalem caused quite a commotion. The news of ‘the newborn king of the Jews’ spread quickly throughout the city. We can imagine lively discussions about the ‘rising star’ they had observed and which initiated their journey. But the fact that they ended up in Jerusalem revealed their knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. They did not simply follow the sign of a particular constellation of stars. They knew about Israel’s messianic hopes. Their foreign origin, their kingly presence and their treasure chests filled with gold, frankincense and myrrh gave them away. They were enacting the promise of Isaiah 60 (vs 1-6):

‘Arise, shine, Jerusalem, for your light has come; and over you the glory of the Lord has dawned. Though darkness covers the earth and dark night the nations, on you the Lord shines and over you his glory will appear; nations will journey towards your light and kings to your radiance. Raise your eyes and look around: they are all assembling, flocking back to you; your sons are coming from afar, your daughters walking beside them. You will see it, and be radiant with joy, and your heart will thrill with gladness; sea-borne riches will be lavished on you and the wealth of nations will be yours. Camels in droves will cover the land, young camels from Midian and Ephah, all coming from Sheba laden with gold and frankincense, heralds of the Lord’s praise.’

It was here in Jerusalem that they expected to find the Jewish messiah, the one who, in the words of Mary’s Magnificat, would defeat the proud and all their schemes, bring down monarchs from their thrones, and raise on high the lowly (Luke 1:46-55).

No wonder King Herod was most unsettled when his spies reported the latest rumours. Matthew tells us that he was ‘greatly perturbed’. He must have taken those claims very seriously and have realised the danger they posed for his rule and power. Why else would he have arranged a consultation with the leading priestly and scribal intelligentsia? As the chief priests and scribes gathered, King Herod asked them: ‘You must know Isaiah 60. What am I to make of these foreign visitors with their camels and gold and frankincense and myrrh? Tell me, where do you think the Messiah is to be born?’

To his great surprise his scholars did not agree with the script the three astrologers had chosen for their journey. It is Bethlehem, not Jerusalem, they argue! It is not Isaiah 60, but Micah 5:2-4: ‘Bethlehem in the land of Judah, you are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a ruler to be the shepherd of my people Israel.’

A secret meeting with the three intellectuals from the East followed. Herod tasked them to travel to Bethlehem and find the newborn king for him. They must have realised at that moment that throughout their long journey they followed the wrong script. Not the impressive and known capital of Jerusalem, but the small, rural and unnoticed village of Bethlehem. They were looking in the wrong place. They missed the mark by 15 kilometres. You might say, what are 15 kilometres out of a journey of at least a thousand? And yet these 15 kilometres must have been the hardest. For it was not just a matter of turning around and heading to Bethlehem. ‘They [had to] reorganize their wealth and learning, and … reorient themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials’ (Walter Brueggemann). Maybe this is the beauty and miracle of the story, that the three astrologers did not resist this alternative, for it was a major shift in thinking.

Herod must have been very worried, though. I am not sure how much his advisors told him about Micah’s radical vision. For it is the voice ‘of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with high towers and great arenas, banks and urban achievements. It anticipates a different future, as yet unaccomplished, that will organize the peasant land in resistance to imperial threat. Micah anticipates a leader who will bring well-being to his people, not by great political ambition, but by attentiveness to the folks on the ground’ (Brueggemann). This is a very different vision from Isaiah 60, which sees Jerusalem restored as the centre of the global economy, with great urban wealth and the urban elites reinstated with their former power and prestige.

The story is hence the story of two very different human communities: ‘Jerusalem with its great pretensions, and Bethlehem, with its modest promises’ (Brueggemann). Where do we find ourselves at the end of this year, after a long hard journey? Fifteen kilometres off the mark? The normal, insular, self-sufficient and self-absorbed life is so much easier. The road to Bethlehem challenges us to leave behind the comfort of security and prosperity and engages us to become more vulnerable and attentive to the voices at the margins. The shambles of the financial crisis calls all nations around the table. They too have been at least 15 kilometres off the mark! They will have to embark on a new journey, where greed and selfishness is replaced by equality and a desire for justice. It is a journey that we have to make together and where the willingness to be mutually dependent on one another has to replace the obsession with independence.

It matters which scripts we choose for our own spiritual journeys. With Isaiah 60 the three astrologers would have missed the goal of their journey. But they were open and humble enough to consider another script. Their humility and willingness to take risks was rewarded – a first glimpse of the prophetic dream that one day the wise and powerful will come to acknowledge Yahweh.

There are many different scripts and prophetic streams within our tradition. The more generous prophesies are of nations coming together in peace, beating their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning hooks, and sharing in a great feast. Other, less generous prophetic traditions ‘speak of the Gentiles coming in submission or coming in attack, only to be minced by divine vengeance and their blood to flow in the streets’ (William Loader). It is both terrifying and worrying how different these biblical scripts can be: salvific or destructive. ‘Tragically we are still reaping the consequences of running with options which see hope in terms of territory to occupy and from which to expel Palestinians or which generalise one aspect of the negative stream into an anti-Semitic myth of world domination with terrible consequences’ (William Loader).

When the astrologers arrived in Bethlehem they presented their gifts: gold for a king – Isaiah 60 and frankincense for God – also Isaiah 60. But they also gave myrrh, for someone who is to suffer and die –not Isaiah 60. The paradoxical combination of their presents reveals a new and deeper understanding of God’s presence with us. Their journey has become one of faith seeking understanding. It is interesting how gifts at times reveal the kind of scripts we follow in our own lives and what is important and dear to us. In some ways one could say that the gifts we offer reveal if we are looking in the right place.

T.S. Eliot remarked in view of the new year: ‘For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning’. I invite you to make an end in order to make a beginning. This year’s words and voices and gifts belong to this year’s script. Next year’s words and voices and gifts await another script!

Walter Brueggemann’s Off By Nine Miles inspired this particular reading of the story, enriched by William Loader’s First Thoughts on Gospel Passages from the Lectionary.