When the Persian astronomers found Jesus in Bethlehem, "they fell down and worshipped him," reads Matthew 2:11. "Opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh."
Imagining what happened to the wise men's gold ought to spark our own moral imagination about what will happen with our own gifts at Christmas, Parham observes.
The word "treasures" means "treasure chests," according to a dusty commentary on Matthew written by John A. Broadus, who noted the "Oriental custom" of giving gifts to a superior, especially "gold and costly spices."
Treasure chests suggest to me lots and lots of wealth.
Sermons, Sunday school lessons, movies, Christmas cards, paintings and manger scenes have reinforced a mental image of real gold, and a goodly amount.
Until last year, however, I had never thought about what happened to the wise men's gold. I had never heard a sermon on the topic. I had never read an article about it.
That question became part of a Christmas editorial in 2010.
"The traditional Christian narrative holds that Jesus was born into a poor and insignificant family at the outskirts of the civilized world. His family was unable to secure room in an inn (Luke 2:7) and offered the poor man's sacrifice of two turtledoves at his purification (Luke 2:22-24). They lived in the village of Nazareth, hardly the center of anything economically, culturally and politically important," read the editorial.
"Yet the wise men gave them the kinds of gifts that should have transformed the economic status of Mary and Joseph – gold, frankincense and myrrh. How much they were given, we don't know."
The editorial concluded, "What happened to that wealth? What did Mary and Joseph do with the gold?"
That editorial question triggered a number of responses.
Longtime Baptist leader Emmanuel McCall wrote that the editorial made him wonder why he had never asked that question.
Layman Tom Brown wrote that he "always assumed" that the gifts financed the flight to Egypt and Joseph's establishment of a business there.
Another reader said that those who ask difficult questions have the punishment of having to answer them.
In my email response to some readers, I wrote, "I don't have an answer to what happened to the wise men's gold. The Bible doesn't tell us."
In hindsight, I may have misspoken. Perhaps I should have answered that the Bible doesn't literally give us an answer. It does give us some strong clues.
Call this exercise the quest to imagine what happened to the wise men's gold.
Consider what the texts tell us about Jesus. Ask how Jesus obtained the advantages of literacy, rabbinical wisdom and cultural acumen coming from such impoverished circumstances.
How does a child born into a poor family become such a compelling figure capable of arguing with the best of the Pharisees? After all, he lived off the beaten path in the Jewish society.
One answer robs him of his humanity. That is, his ability to read from Isaiah, for example, came from his divinity.
Another answer is the pre-Protestant work ethic. He worked harder than everyone else, teaching himself Hebrew and studying the Hebrew texts by the fireplace until the break of dawn.
A third answer is that he was born with an IQ off the charts. He was a genetic anomaly.
If these answers ring hollow, consider a fourth speculative answer: His parents invested most of the gold in his education and future vocation, anticipating great things from their son (Luke 1:32-33 and Matthew 1:20-21).
Without the gold, answering these questions becomes tricky:
● Where did Jesus get the training to ask probative questions of the teachers in the temple and astonish them with his insight (Luke 2:46-47)?
● Where did he learn to read (Luke 4:16)?
● How was he able to teach in the synagogues "with authority" (Luke 4:32)?
● What gave him the confidence to interface with the tax collectors, who were among the wealthiest members of society?
● How was Jesus able to finance 12 disciples? Remember some of the disciples had families. How did these families sustain themselves while their husbands were wandering all over the country?
● Where did the startup funds come for the "money box" that Judas carried (John 12:6)?
Persian gold certainly helps answer questions about the education and vocation of the Palestinian prophet.
If Jesus did indeed have access to the wise men's gold – firsthand experience with wealth – then we can better understand why he knew the dangers of wealth.
He rejected the evil one's temptation of bread (the temptation of economic power) in the wilderness (Luke 4:3-4). He warned that one can't serve God and mammon (Luke 16:13). He knew the earthly limits of wealth (Luke 12:21), what it meant to be lovers of money (Luke 16:14), the selfishness of the wealthy (Luke 16:19-31) and how difficult it was for the rich to follow him (Luke 18:18-25). He also recognized what it meant for the wealthy to repent of ill-gotten gains (Luke 19:1-10).
Imagining what happened to the wise men's gold ought to spark our own moral imagination about what will happen with our own gifts at Christmas. What do we do with our own abundance?
Will we, too, recognize that wealth has the power to distort and the power to do good?
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.