One of the most fresh and challenging interpretations surrounding the Christmas narrative was produced by South Africa’s renowned theologian, the late Steve de Gruchy. In regards to the Magi and their visit with Joseph, Mary, and the newly born Jesus in Matthew 2: 1-12, de Gruchy offers a striking proposal surrounding the biblical text and its direct relationship with cooperative efforts between those in the so-called global north and south. He wrote:
One of the ways of reading [Matthew 2:1-12] is to see how the Magi, from the east symbolize – in today’s global configuration – people from the ‘north’ who posses wealth and wisdom, and who seek to contribute to those who are poorer than themselves.
Herod symbolizes the local elites that so often control the political economy of the ‘south.’ And the holy family symbolizes the millions of vulnerable people who live in poverty throughout the globe, predominantly in the ‘south,' but also in the ‘north’ (and ‘east’ and ‘west!’).
In the story, the Magi from the ‘north’ first make contact with those in the ‘south’ whom they have an affinity, namely a representative of the political and economic elite, Herod (v.1). This elite has no interest in the vulnerable poor in their own country, and they seek, as always, to use those from the ‘north’ to serve their own ends (v.3).
However, the story turns on the fact that the Scriptures point the Magi to Bethlehem (v.5-6), where they learn that the one whom they must respect in God’s scheme of things is not to be found in a palace, but in a humble shack. Their journey, guided by the words of the prophet (v.5) and God’s star (v.6) lead them to meet the poor of the south in Mary, Joseph and Jesus.
Among other things, a key insight into this portion of the Christmas narrative is that God is revealed through the vulnerability of poverty and marginalization. The main characters of the Christmas plot are not wealthy and prosperous high-rollers, but the downtrodden and vulnerable poor who stand as deliberate reminders of how God is in solidarity with those who are too often forgotten and oppressed. If Mary and Joseph were people of wealth and privilege, they surely would have received room at the inn, yet God shows an alternative to the common hierarchies of status in our world, and such pushed-aside people are given highest priority as the bearers of Christ.
The Magi within Matthew’s Christmas narrative inspire us to reflect on our place – and reform our priorities – in an ever-changing and increasingly connected globalized world. For citizens of the U.S., the account of Jesus’ birth pushes us to reconsider our federal government’s global relationships and prods us to revolutionize our less-than-perfect methods of diplomacy and development. In addition to policy and procedures, Matthew’s Gospel also reveals how personal beliefs, actions, and alliances have an impact on various communities thousands of miles away. As de Gruchy states:
Somehow, in their journey to the south, [the Magi] were touched by God’s presence, became suspicious of the agenda of the local elite, and found joy in forging a relationship with the poor. They bow before the manger, and offer their gifts, symbolizing the self-emptying of power and the willingness to have their agenda shaped by the concerns of the ‘south.'
These gifts are offered, moreover, not to bribe officials, create dependency, or leverage influence, but simply as a sign of homage and respect.
In striking fashion, the Magi within Matthew’s Christmas narrative point us toward new and wise concepts of foreign policy and developmental efforts, as we are pressed into global companionships that affirm people in the southern hemisphere as subjects of history and not merely the objects. In other words, rather than people from the global north setting the agenda, we learn to allow all members of our global village to name and implement their own priorities. As members of one human family, we journey alongside one another as companions regardless of nationality, and by God’s grace, seek fruitful cooperation to the best of our collective abilities for the benefit of our collective common good.
As the Magi related to others in new ways as a result of God’s presence, the time is upon us to allow God to redefine our relationships and convert our various connections within the global village. Instead of a foreign policy too often shaped by privilege and power, and in place of international development schemes repeatedly saturated with labels of “giver” and “receiver," we are moved to embody mutuality, companionship, and recognize the godly wisdom and assets of foreign communities. In other words, instead of viewing Christmas as a period of increased momentary and monetary charity, the Magi reveal that God is more fully found in the long-term transformation of relationships and connections, thus we too are inspired to accompany, serve, and advocate alongside others for the sake of a global common good.
As the presence of God moved the Magi to follow the star and have their place in the world redefined, may the same be true for us, and may the awesome reality of Jesus’ birth send us forth to bring God’s joy to all the world.
Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, WI), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).