The Common Good

On Scripture: Frankincense, Myrrh, and a Toothbrush? Matthew 2:1-12

In As I Lay Dying, the main character Anse appears self-absorbed when at his wife’s death he says, “God’s will be done.  . . . Now I can get them teeth.”  His character will certainly not be remembered for altruism.  But Anse will be remembered for the physical effects of poverty:  feet marred by labor, a spine permanently bent, skin unable to sweat from sunstroke suffered tending the fields, and a mouth without teeth. 

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Portrait of mid-adult male with missing tooth. iofoto / Shutterstock

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To be clear, poverty itself does not cause dental issues.  A local dentist reminds me, “Ancient skulls have minimal tooth loss.  Rough grains cause more wear.  For the most part rich, processed, sugary, and poorly nutritious foods destroy teeth.” 

Dentistry may feel far removed from Epiphany:  astronomical sighting, magi from the east, and three extravagant gifts. But I wonder, given the knowledge of these precious gifts and their use in that time for dental care, if perhaps that frankincense and myrrh would protect that winsome smile of Christ for the next three decades of his life. With these rich gifts in hand, the trio Mary, Joseph, and Jesus could leave to the safety of Egypt before Herod would threaten the life of Christ and every other young boy under two.

Recently, our church hosted a series of panel discussions on poverty.  A pivotal moment occurred when a woman in our congregation who lives below the poverty line while raising three kids had a heated interaction with a dentist.  She was at the breaking point after years of trying to secure affordable dental care for her family.  He was at the breaking point after years of paperwork, missed appointments, and difficulty in navigating public insurance systems.  Suddenly, the face of poverty became very clear and it looked a lot like Anse.  Even more so, we realized the divide between rich and poor can be seen not by looking at house size, checkbooks, or retirement accounts, but by looking at a person’s smile.

From the lex talionis (one eye for one eye) to ‘the gnashing of teeth,’ the Bible has a few things to say about dentistry.  Certainly Jesus transformed the law of retribution when he proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount to turn the other cheek.  But for its own time, the lex talionis revolutionized retribution.  “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” put a limit on revenge that in previous generations could rapidly spiral out of control.  The limit on retribution can be surmised from the clearly stated law.  Just as critical, but less visible, is the fact that ‘an eye for an eye’ narrowed the inequality among the Hebrew people.  The lex talionis was radical in its day: a servant’s eye suddenly equaled the eye of a king. Both mattered.   Brutal, yes.  But beautiful in its radical equality.

The philosophy of “turning the other cheek,” offered by Jesus could have easily ended the references to teeth in the Bible.  But Matthew’s gospel continues the conversation.  Six times throughout the gospel, the writer of Matthew says there will be ‘weeping and the gnashing of teeth’ in the outer darkness.  This text makes pastors shudder and churchgoers walk out the back doors of the sanctuary.  While there is discussion about the exact nature of this mysterious “outer darkness,” one thing is clear:  this is a place of separation from God. 

Is it possible that “the gnashing of teeth” is a visual picture of those with wealth?  Teeth capable of gnashing have received proper dental care, been flossed, and are freed from sugary decay.  For someone living near or below the poverty line, the gnashing of teeth represents something all too often beyond their reach — affordable and accessible dental care. 

Just as scripture makes us see the reality of injustice, so too do the faces of those who live in poverty in America.  Inequality is as visible as a toothless smile.  Fifty million Americans have lost all of their teeth.  The Surgeon General reported, “Dental disease (tooth decay) is the single most chronic childhood disease.”  And yet, this is a preventable disease.  In addition the Surgeon General notes, “Over 108 million children and adults lack dental insurance, which is over 2.5 times the number who lack medical insurance."  While there are incredible clinics and faithful dentists who serve a population in need, the resources are not enough.

Since the era of Jesus, dental care has thankfully improved. No longer is a suwack, a wooden chewstick with a frayed end, the common toothbrush. Fillings today are used to preserve teeth, not to protect teeth from fragmenting when they were pulled as the dentists in the day of Jesus did. No longer are earthworms and spider eggs used for toothaches. Dentistry may have evolved, but the discrepancy between dental options for rich and poor has not.


Thank God for medical clinics like the Sumter Faith Clinic in Americus, Georgia. While their services are medical, not dental, their ability to be resourceful with gifts given by the community to run a free medical clinic is admirable and worthy of note. With a budget of only $2,000, Mary Wysochansky and Anna Stinchcum utilize the gift of office space, the gifts of local churches, and the gifts in kind of local providers to cover the costs and meet the needs of the uninsured and underinsured in their community. The dental community can look to examples like theirs to be inspired for creative ways of serving those in need of dental care.

Watch: Sumter Faith Clinic: "The Lord Led Us"

The gifts to Jesus of frankincense and myrrh from the wise men were practical forms of dentistry. Myrrh eases gum disease, lessened soreness, and treated tooth decay. Frankincense strengthens teeth and gums, refreshes the mouth, and fights infection caused by tooth decay. The surgeon general of Jesus’ day would have been pleased to see dental care beginning even before Jesus’ first tooth appeared.

Even today, gifts of dental healthcare for those in need continue to be vital. Now, our systems are strained and insurance options are measly. Where are the wise men and women of today willing to take on the adaptive change of broadening access and affordability of dental care? In this day and age, we need the spirit of Epiphany — of giving to others — to continue. 

Lisa Nichols Hickman serves at New Wilmington Presbyterian Church, teaches part-time at Westminster College and writes regularly for the 'Call and Response' blog on the 'Faith and Leadership' website.  Her book, 'The Worshiping Life', is used by seminaries and small groups. This ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.

Photo: iofoto / Shutterstock

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