What star do you follow? What road do you walk?
The story of the three wise men that we have today from Matthew, is strange. Three nameless travelers follow a star to kneel before the child Jesus. There is no way around the strangeness. We variously have called these characters “the wise men,” or the “three kings,” or the “magi (the magicians).” The last title is closest to the original.
In Matthew’s Gospel three strange visitors “appear” in Jerusalem. The details of their visit are shadowy, we know they come from the East. We know they have status. These magicians must also be astrologers, for they have noticed a new star in their Western horizon and have followed its appearance. Somehow though, they got a bit lost along the way…
The three magicians, seemingly used to government contracting, head to the royal authority in the region. Herod the Great, Herod I, ruled as a client king for Rome in Jerusalem, and these three men come knocking on the halls of power. They seem to know that a king has been born, which makes, Herod who is perfectly happy reigning as king, currently reigning as king, very nervous. New candidates tend to make incumbents nervous. Herod checking in with his own paid consultants, identifies Bethlehem as the city of coming anointed one, the Messiah’s portended birthplace.
You might notice I keep referring to the Magi, the wise men, the three kings, as “consultants.” Maybe this is because I find myself living in a town where it seems more people contract or consult for the government than actually work in the government. Probably though, I have just been watching too much of the Television show MadMen. Now do not despair. I worked for awhile trying to get a joke that brought together the titles “Wisemen” and “MadMen”, but it never quite worked. So I will spare you.
But the past few months I have been captivated by the TV show MadMen, and luckily I can now stream the first several seasons. If you don’t know MadMen, it is a primetime TV drama that centers around consultants, specifically a Madison Avenue Advertising agency Adman: Don Draper. MadMen’s drama plays out in the usual ways: Don trips through seedy romantic relationships. The plot develops around campaigns for big name clients. The whole show is saturated with the glamour of New York. The twist of MadMen is that, unlike most of our TV shows which are set in the modern day, Don does not work on today’s Madison Avenue. The MadMen universe is set in the 1960s, and the thrust, the energy of the show is a sort of “my-how-times-have-changed” effect.
Often this is played for a comedy. As regularly as possible we hear what people earn in salary: $40 week is middle class pay. But that is okay because apartments rent in Manhattan for a couple hundred dollars a month, and a cup of coffee costs a nickel. (My how times have changed). Pregnant women regularly swill cocktails and smoke. Everyone smokes. (My how times have changed).
Other “my-how-times-have-changed” moments play around questions of justice. Every man in the office works behind a door, and every woman, save one plucky Peggy Olsen, works in front of a door. All the women do is answer phones, type, get drinks for the men. The one black man in the office operates the elevator. No one picks up on the clues that the art director is gay, not even his wife.
Part of the “my-how-times-have-changed” thrust of MadMen is that here, in the advertising offices that the fictional MadMen office represents, a major revolution took place. You see the times they were a-changin’ in the 1960s on Madison Avenue, and in many ways the people that worked there, they helped those times change. Regularly on MadMen the advertising agents consider how the new fields of psychology and sociology can help them sell their product. They seek to push consumers to see how purchasing a product or service is in their “self-interest.” Don Draper convinces Lucky Strike cigarettes that they do not need to produce the “best cigarettes” or the healthiest cigarettes, or have better filters. They need to catch the sense of pleasure that the consumer has in imagining herself satisfied by purchasing and using the product. “Luckies are toasted.” (All cigarettes at the time were “toasted” but something about the word brings images of satisfaction to the consumer.)
The admen of Madmen were busy in the 60s, as they are busy today, polishing a star. “Follow this star, the star of self-interest. Buy the product. Consume the service. You will be satisfied.” This is the message of advertising. Madison avenue still wants you to follow that star. It is a very old star, perhaps one of the oldest, the star of self-interest and consumption. The star of self-image.
Lest we think this was only a problem in the time of MadMen, we have an article that my mother sent me about the religious neural impulses caused by iPads. My mom and I are Apple devotees, and so when scientists began
claiming that Apple’s iPad advertising caused the same neurons to fire in the brains of Apple consumers as icons and religious images caused in the brain pathways of religious followers, we were not that surprised. The image of the satisfied consumer, the star of self image can exert powerful influence.
I wonder if that star, that old star, is what distracted the magi, the wise men, on their road to see the Christ child. These mystical consultants were used to working with kings. I wonder if the star above Herod’s palace in Jerusalem appeared more familiar that night. That star had led them before to influence, to comfort and power. I wonder if that star caused the detour to Herod’s throne-room.
Something about where that old star had led them, it did not seem right. The magi are wise enough to know that when they have arrived at Herod’s palace, they have not really arrived. My family always laughs at those GPS systems that come in rental cars, the ones that tell you, “you have arrived.” Somehow you know you really haven’t. Something nags at the magi. Another star beckons.
Following the Star of Jesus the Messiah takes them to an unexpected place. They kneel not in a throne room, but in a much humbler home. Their opulent gifts seem out of place in the ramshackle Bethlehem dwelling. But something happens to the wise men, as they kneel before the baby under that unexpected star. Some change is wrought. Though Herod has asked them to return to his palace, to share the location of the competing candidate, they choose to return “by another road.”
These strange men are, in Matthew’s Gospel, the first converts. I debated using that word “convert.” There is another sermon to be preached about the magi, Matthew, and interfaith dialogue, because these pagan astronomers do not walk away reciting the Nicene Creed. They might do something like that in John’s Gospel, but Matthew is content that their conversion be a conversion of life. Their religious ideology to us is unknown, but encountering God in Christ caused them to live differently. They walk away by another road.