What Makes a Man (or a Woman) Wise

Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the coming of the Three Wise Men. Today’s lesson is of the moments in the Bible when the New Revised Standard Version, the translation we use most often at Holy Communion, could make a decision about gender plurals in Greek. Often masculine plurals in the Greek have been changed for the New Revised Standard Version. In the older “Revised Standard Version,” when Jesus in Matthew Chapter 5 for instance says “tous adelphous,” the English is rendered as a masculine plural “your brothers.” In the New Revised Standard Version it becomes “Your brothers and sisters.” Greek, like many languages, uses masculine plurals if there are any men in a group. So the translation is plausible. We can included “sisters” in modern English translations of the Bible.

But somehow “three wise men” doesn’t become “a group of three wise men and women.” You’ll see in our short pageant later, we’ve decided to go with that idea anyway. We’ve got a wise woman bringing a gift at Holy Communion. But our modern feminist translation of the Bible doesn’t change the masculine plural here. I wonder why. You know the old joke right? What would have happened if there had been three wise women instead of wise men? Three Wise Women would have “asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts and there would be Peace on Earth.”

I know that’s a lot of setup for a joke. But it is also to point something out glaring in the text. As wise men go, these guys have a lot against them at the start. How do you call someone wise who leaves home following a star, only to get lost and end up not only at the wrong house, but in the wrong city. Why do they arrive so late? Christmas was awhile ago guys. What gives? How do we call them wise?

What makes wise men and women wise?

I want to posit this morning, that this text is about wisdom. This strange story of the magi teaches us that wisdom is different than knowledge. A wise person is able to listen deeply. A wise person stays open for spiritual surprises, and a wise person can accept a big change in the plan.

The magi listen deeply. These are shadowy characters. The visitors appear from the East, they last for exactly twelve verses and are never mentioned again. We know that they must be astrologers, for they are following signs in the heavens. We know they must have some status, because they are given an audience with King Herod. It makes sense that they end up in the throne room. Common knowledge tells you that if your star has predicted the birth of the King of the Jews, you head to Jerusalem. But as they listen to Herod, something doesn’t sound right.

We talked about Herod last week. Herod wasn’t really in the business of listening. Herod was in the business of telling. The client-king, politician, and architect wanted to make sure you knew HIS story. Herod wants to control the narrative. Herod wants to be in charge of the story. Herod wants you to listen to him. But though the Wise Men have arrived at the house of the man the Romans have declared “King of the Jews,” they know something is off.

We have the benefit of 2000 years of telling and retelling of Jesus’ story. Our perspective is shaped by our history. But the magi lived in what the Gospel calls “the time of King Herod.” Herod was large and in charge, and it would have been hard to hear anything other than what Herod wanted you to hear, especially in the palace. But the magi are able to listen to something deeper than the surface story. They are able to tell that all of the pomp and power, all of the wealth and might that Herod has on display, it isn’t what they are looking for. He’s not their king. This isn’t the star they have followed. They hear over the clamor of the palace. They listen deeply, and they head to Bethlehem.

Now this is where the story gets interesting. Up until now, this has been a political drama. Three distant officials coming to celebrate the birth of a foreign king, could be an important act of diplomacy. But following the Star of Jesus 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. The story ceases to be a political drama, and becomes, dare I say, religious. They are in for a spiritual surprise.

I believe the magi are surprised by Jesus. They were expecting to find a king, and they find themselves among the poor, the lonely, and the frightened. How fitting a place to meet Jesus. Matthew makes it clear to us that these men are not Jews. They come from “The East.” They’re not Romans. We do not know their faith, but we know they’re not Christians (No one was Christian yet. Jesus had just been born). Yet, somehow, encountering the infant Jesus, they have a spiritual experience.

Christianity, as a whole, has been historically hostile to other religious perspectives. We’ve called others heretics and heathens. We’ve launched conversion campaigns and crusades. Today, as we live in a more pluralistic world, where Christians like us here at Holy Communion are trying to live peacefully with other religious people, I think we could borrow some wisdom from the magi.

Whatever their faith, these three mysterious figures know they have encountered something sacred in Jesus. You can have all of the religious knowledge in the world. You can have all of the Bible memorized. You could get a PhD in Systematic Theology and write a thesis on Thomas Aquinas. But it takes wisdom, not knowledge, to see when God is acting outside your religious systems. It takes wisdom to let God surprise you by showing up in a slum, among people of another faith.

Christians today have some learning to do as we approach other faiths, and we can learn from some of the first wise people who knelt before our Savior, people who didn’t share his faith. What would it mean to approach other faiths with an open heart? Could we meditate with Buddhists, whirl with Sufi dervishes, eat a Passover meal with Jewish neighbors? Could we be open to the Spirit moving in all of this? The magi did not convert to Christianity on the spot. They didn’t walk away reciting the Nicene Creed. But these wise people understood that something surprising had taken place. Their hearts were open enough to be surprised by the Spirit working in another culture, another faith.

Something happens to the magi, 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 king, they choose to return “by another road.” This brings us to the third teaching about wisdom in our text: Wise women and men are able to make a big change in plan.

I love the poetic way Matthew puts this change. “They returned home by another road.” It reminds you of Robert Frost, doesn’t it? “and I/I took the [road] less travelled by/and that has made all the difference.” They returned home by another road.

How often in life do we end up on another road? More often than we planned for sure. Sometimes, like Frost, we choose the road. Sometimes, like the magi, the road chooses us. The circumstances changed for these wise people. They knew they couldn’t return to Herod, and so, they had to take another road.

I know some of you are on unchosen roads. Ernie Last and I had a conversation this week, and he shared this on Facebook, so I feel comfortable sharing it with you. Ernie has been diagnosed with cancer again. Many of you know the Lasts faced other health and family challenges in 2015. This week was tough news, and I ask your prayers for Ernie and Joy.

When he called to tell me, I didn’t have any wonderful healing words. I wish they could tell you exactly what to say in Seminary. Maybe they did, and I skipped class that day. All I could come up with in the moment was “This sucks.” Ernie reported my words on Facebook. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not upset about that. Sometimes you just have to say what you mean. But I also told him, and he also reported, that he wasn’t going to be alone. He may not have chosen this road, but I knew how much he and Joy are loved in this community and by the people of Holy Communion. He isn’t going to walk this road alone.

Ernie is just one example. I know many of you have faced or are facing unchosen roads: facing diagnosis, facing loss, facing changes in direction you wouldn’t have chosen. Whatever road you find yourself on. Know that you do not have to walk alone.

Ram Dass the Jewish/Hindu professor and religious teacher explained the work of spiritual community better than anyone I know. He said simply, “in the end, we are all just walking each other home.” Wisdom is characterized by the ability to face a big change in the plan, to take another road. And wisdom is most often grown in community. Whatever road you find yourself on, it will lead you home. You will have people to walk with you. WE are all just walking each other home.

Today, we’re celebrating Epiphany. On Wednesday, January 6, the proper feast day of the Epiphany. a small group of us gathered in the Chapel for Eucharist. It just happened that January 6th fell on the 1st Wednesday of the month. We have Eucharist at 12:10pm each 1st and 3rd Wednesday. The crowd that gathers is usually a group of people who have reached a “mature” age. Most people who can come to a mid-week, mid-day Eucharist are retired. I joked with them that we often use the term “wise” to talk about people who are older than we are. “Wise” can be used as a euphemism. But then again we all know some folks that have grown older without getting any wiser.

So, if it isn’t age, what makes a man (or a woman) wise? Wisdom, at least for the magi, comes from listening deeply, staying open to spiritual surprises, and accepting changes to the plan. The magi’s star may not lead power and influence, to money and fame. But those who follow that star may find themselves able to accept some of the changes and chances of life, to hear the voice of God in surprising places. Together shall we follow that star, the star that leads to wisdom?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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