“And since they [the Magi] had been warned according to a dream not to return to Herod,” the Matthean author reports, “they returned to their own territory by a different way” (Matthew 2:12, my translation). I think this verse deserves some concentrated attention as we seek to interpret our text and the larger Matthean prologue known as the Infancy Narrative.
Let’s start with the verbs translated in the NRSV as “to return.” In fact, these are two different Greek verbs. I think that matters, and I am struggling to include that distinction in my translation (with little success at this point). The first verb is “anakampto.” The root of this verb, “kampto,” according to Schlier (TDNT III:594) “is the gesture of full inner submission in worship to the one before we bow the knee.”
The verb is in the same family of ideas as “proskuneo,” the verb used both by the Magi and by Herod to describe submitting to the new King of the Jews by bowing the knee. The “return” that the Magi rejected in verse 12 was connected to submitting to Herod in obedience. Herod was no longer referred to as “king” by that time in the text. The Magi were not going to submit once again to Herod’s orders, manipulation, and schemes. They resolved to find “another way.”
The second verb translated as “to return” in verse twelve is “anachoreo.” This verb is directly related to the word for “area” or “region” that we find in verse twelve as well. So, the Magi went back to their own territory. They didn’t do so by retracing their steps through Jerusalem. But they got home nonetheless. So, the Magi did not return in obedience to Herod. Rather, they were guided by a new King and traveled “another way.”
I belabor this point because it would be so easy for us as contemporary (and English-speaking) Jesus followers to miss what the Matthean author is saying. When we kneel at the feet of the Messiah, we renounce allegiance to any other sovereign in our lives. When we get up from that encounter, we will travel by another way. Early Jesus followers referred to their faith commitment as “the Way.” And we have the Greek word for “way” in our text here.
Following Jesus means traveling home by “another way.” I think that’s a potential theme for one who might preach on this text in the next few weeks.
Matthew 2:12 is the climax of and punchline for a story filled with juxtapositions and oppositions. In my previous post, I examined the juxtaposition and opposition created by putting Herod the King in contact with Jesus the King. That’s one of the major themes of the Matthean author, as we have seen by looking briefly at the Matthean passion account. But we have other comparisons and contrasts as well.
Our text gives us two cities associated with King David. We get his birthplace in humble Bethlehem. And we get his royal city of Jerusalem. Which city gives us the real son of David, who is the Messiah, the Lord? On the basis of words from Micah five, the high priests and scribes of the people identify Bethlehem as the defining location for the Messiah. Jerusalem is the place where the ruler and all the people are threatened by such a revelation.
The Matthean author is the master of the “little text/big context” method of employing Hebrew scripture in Christian texts. The quote from Micah 5 is a primary example of this method. I think it’s helpful to begin reading the Micah prophecy back in chapter 4. The prophet describes the days to come when the Lord’s house will be on the highest mountain in the world. The Gentile nations shall stream to that house to learn the ways of the God of Jacob.
Instruction (Torah!) will come out from Zion. The word of the Lord will proceed from Jerusalem. This teaching will produce peace between the nations. Everyone shall sit under their own vines and fig trees. Mutual fear will be a thing of the past. The nations may still walk in the names of their own gods, but Israel will continue to point to the Lord forever. The lame, the outcast, the rejected – all will be gathered to that holy mountain.
The oracle takes a dark turn after that. Clearly, Micah says, this is not what is happening now. The Babylonian Exile cannot be avoided, but it will not be the end of the story. Jerusalem may be under siege now, but there’s more coming.
Jerusalem may well fall, we hear in Micah 5. But there’s still Bethlehem of Ephrathah. The ruler to come will arise from the same little town that produced the first David. And like that first David, this new ruler shall be a shepherd king – not anything like Herod, the great pretender, now on the Jerusalem throne.
Therefore, the Matthean author reminds us, the King of the Jews is not that corrupt fraud in Jerusalem. Nor is the King of the Jews anything like the ruler that Jerusalem may produce. Instead, we should expect a shepherd King, like David in his beginnings – one who shall feed his flock and protect them from danger and harm. And this one, as we have seen, is the kind of King who deserves our humble submission, adoration, and allegiance.
Not only do we see this description of “which David” will define the King of the Jews, but we also see some remarkable comparisons and contrasts in class, status, and privilege. When the Magi return by another way, they don’t go back to the supposed seat of power and privilege represented by the throne of Herod. They have been to the real throne – a humble little hovel in Bethlehem. The Messiah is not to be found among the great and powerful, but rather among the “little” of the clans of Judah. The foreshadowing of the Parable of the Great Judgment in Matthew 25 is pronounced when we use this interpretive lens.
Herod is surrounded by ambitious retainers and fawning sycophants. He rules by fear and intimidation. He is paranoid, calculating, violent, and merciless. He imposes his will on all of Jerusalem. He is friend and ally of the Empire and the Emperor. He is a wealthy builder of monuments to his own ego – including his generational commitment to rebuilding the Jerusalem temple. He uses his accomplishments to prove a “worthiness” to rule that he cannot have.
This is a picture of power and privilege, of wealth and status. The picture is complete with all of the prerogatives of that power and all the insecurities that come from protecting it. And the picture finishes a few verses later when Herod “the Great” still dies miserable and alone.
Then there is the real King of the Jews. He is born in humble circumstances. He lives his life in opposition to the powers that be. He lives his life under constant threat from those powers. That threat commences almost as soon as he is born. After all, Herod begins seeking the life of the child as soon as he hears about the new birth. Yet, the Magi do not open their gifts for Herod. The royal gifts are for the child in Bethlehem, the one who – regardless of external circumstances – is the true King of the Jews.
Where do we look for signs of power and prestige? We continue to look to the throne of Herod rather than the “house of bread” (the literal meaning of “Bethlehem”). We, especially white, privileged, wealthy, American Christians, put our hopes in money and buildings and politics. We continue to maintain our churches as bastions of white, upper middle-class propriety. We live segregated lives, where race and class are not permitted to intrude.
The Matthean account is, I suspect, challenging Jesus followers in social positions much like those we white American Christians occupy. For those in the Matthean community who have some measure of privilege and comfort, a time has come for a certain reckoning. Accommodation with the Herods and Pilates of the world won’t do. The Matthean account presents some stark either/ors, beginning with this contrast between kings. And the pressure for disciples to choose will mount throughout the gospel account.