The Three Wise Guys

ImageThe three wise men.  That’s what we call them, although it says nowhere in Matthew that there were actually three.  Perhaps they would be better labeled as the “the three wise guys.”  Herod was the Kim Jong Un of his time.  This was Herod Antipas, not to be confused with his father, Herod the Great.  He was paranoid and realized that he was no more than a puppet at the hands of those more powerful than he.  He killed his own family members out of paranoia that they would try to dethrone him and even divorced his own wife to marry his brother’s.  When John the Baptist spoke out against this marriage arrangement, Herod had John’s head served up on a silver platter – literally.

It must have been a great slap in the face then, for these three wise guys to show up at Herod’s doorstep saying, “We understand that a new king has been born.  Someone who will be greater than you.  We want to go pay him homage, so can you tell us where he might be?”  That would be like going to Kim Jong Un and saying, “We hear that a new leader over all of unified Korea has been born, can you show us where he is?”  You can imagine how Herod would have flown into a rage and ordered every child two and under to be killed.

The question that has to nag at us though, is, who were these wise men and why did they go to Jesus?  It might be helpful to take a look at who they likely were.  The magi were called wise men, but they were also mystics and astrologers.   Magi is the plural of magus which was the name for a Zoroastrian practitioner.   Looking back on history and connecting the dots, we can determine that these Zoroastrians were from either Persia or Babylon.  A good number of Jews never came back from the exile to Babylon and it is a distinct possibility that, if these Zoroastrians were Babylonian, they could be familiar with the Jewish concept of a messiah.  Likewise, if they were Persians, they would be very familiar with the Jews as it was Cyrus, the founder of Persia, that defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return home and even helped them rebuild their temple.  From 1500 BCE, Zoroastrianism was the primary religion in that area in terms of monotheistic religions.  In fact, it is said to have been the first monotheistic religion followed soon thereafter by Judaism.

Zoroaster, or Zarathustra was a religious figure who got tired of the class/purity systems of his area in what is today northeast Iran.  There was a pantheon of deities and people were expected to please the Gods or face the consequences leading to strict purity rules that developed into a caste system.  Zoroaster found this to be very oppressive and was reported to, during one of the purification rituals, had an experience in which he encountered Mazda – the one true God.  This God, Zoroaster said, is all good and is the creator of the universe.  Mazda dwells within humans and every bit of good in people is a manifestation of Mazda, where all evil is from Angra Mainyu.  It was supposedly revealed to Zoroaster that Mazda wanted for humans to focus on practicing good words, good thoughts, and good deeds.  In doing so, the goodness would be spread to others and eventually evil would be defeated and a new kingdom would be established here on the earth while those who embraced evil ended up in hell with Angra.  Sound familiar?  Yeah, I thought it might.  It was into such a system of Jewish purity laws and class division between the pure and the untouchables that Jesus was born into.

King Cyrus had been a Zoroastrian and proselytizing was against the core of the religion.  More important than converting people to certain beliefs was teaching people to show compassion and love to one another, thereby bringing about heaven on earth.  It is no wonder then that King Cyrus has a special place in the hearts of many Jews, especially since he sent Sheshbazzar along with Zerubbabel back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and then commissioned Ezra to go back and teach God’s law to the newly returned Jews.

Fast forward about 500 years and here we find a group of Zoroastrian mystics, those who believe fully in the immanence of God within human beings, going to pay homage to one who was to be the ultimate incarnation of God.  These men were signifying the end of the old order and the beginning of the new.  This was not to replace Judaism, but to embrace it while casting off the man-made oppressive aspects of it that only served to make God seem farther away.  We humans are good at building systems and structures that are supposed to get us closer to God that only serve as barriers that prevent us from seeing God.

If God indwells all humans, and those who are open to the awareness of the presence of God can experience that connectivity, then it should be no surprise that these Zoroastrian mystics would have experienced something like a cosmic earthquake at the core of their being when a God-man like Jesus entered the scene.  Someone who wanted exactly what they wanted – the redemption of all creation – had come and they just had to meet him.  It’s not known how long these men stayed and who knows, could they have even had some influence on Jesus’ spiritual development?

We can learn from these men that it’s not always wise to turn to the powers that be for wisdom and direction.  Just because it’s “The way we’ve always done it” doesn’t mean it’s the best way.  Herod and the religious leaders represented the old ways that just led to death.  Fear leads to an irrational and dangerous attempt at grasping and holding on to save some semblance of familiarity.  Let’s be open to new revelation no matter where it comes from.  Let’s see that God is still speaking, and in this New Year, let’s put the fear, complacency, trepidation aside and dare to do something different.

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