Buried within the Christmas story is a subplot that needs unearthing, perhaps more now than in a long, long time.
Of course, big chunks of the Christmas story are well known, and that’s part of the problem. So much of the Christmas account is so popular that one particular segment gets overlooked.
Everyone knows about the shepherds, angels and kings bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
What is missed is a side of the story that doesn’t serve well with easy conversation over eggnog. It’s about political power and civic dissent.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the Christmas story records a journey from the East–most likely Persia–to Jerusalem by wise men, alternatively called kings or magi. They were really astrologers: the inquisitive, the intellectuals, the scientists of their day.
They wanted to honor the one born “king of the Jews,” having followed his star to Judea. Yet their arrival in Jerusalem and search for an infant king rattled the sitting king, for Herod knew nothing about the birth of a rival.
King Herod’s political paranoia fed his sycophant court and seeped out into the capital. When he pressed his leadership, they fessed up that they knew about the reports, citing the prophet Micah, who said a ruler would be born into the tribe of Judah.
The shrewd Herod quickly pivoted from his counselors and discreetly called the wise men to meet with him.
They told him what they knew. He told them what he wanted to know, while concealing his intent.
They heard Herod without assenting to his charming request for new information, perhaps discerning his deception.
Departing from the king’s court, the wise men found the Christ-child and bestowed their gifts of reverence, from which springs the tradition of Christmas gifts.
Warned in a dream, a respected source of discernment in the ancient world, they then left the child and veered away from Herod toward home.
Likewise warned in a dream, the child’s family fled to Egypt, beyond Herod’s reach.
Herod soon became aware the wise men had rejected his request, but he did not know that the child’s family had become refugees.
Feeling tricked and even more vulnerable, Herod unleashed his rage against the territory around the village of Bethlehem, where his rival had been born. He killed all the male children 2 years old and younger, much as Egypt’s Pharaoh had killed the young Hebrew male children at the time of Moses’ birth.
While the broad strokes of this story may be recalled, it is the wise men’s civic engagement that deserves recovery, for they offer us a much-needed model.
The wise men refused the seduction of political power. They listened respectfully to Herod but kept their objectivity. They discerned the signs of the times and practiced daring dissent in the face of distortive power. They remained faithful to their religious mission.
Today we also need discerning people of faith, who engage but keep their distance from political power, deflecting its inherent manipulation and dissenting from its use of religion for the exercise of malignant power.
Those who bore gifts for the messiah also bear a gift for our society—the need for discernment and dissent.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.