News Flash: The Jews’ King Is Everybody’s King!
Matthew reports (2:1-12) that “wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child
who has been born King of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage,”
Why should foreigners pay homage to the King of the Jews?
To understand what Matthew is doing here, we have to understand that the early Church was divided over the issue of allowing Gentiles to become Christians without becoming culturally Jews by observing all the Jewish religious laws. The “Pharisee party” in the Church, who found their identity in a communal, cultural style of life determined by a set of customary religious practices, could not accept any change in the rules. They fought bitterly against making exceptions for people who did not have the same cultural background.
Because of the dissension, the Church met in Jerusalem, argued and prayed, and finally decided not to impose Jewish rules and practices on Gentile converts (see Acts 10:1 to 11:18; 13:44-51; and especially 15:1-33). It was at this moment that the Church became consciously “catholic”; that is, universal, as opposed to a religion identified with a particular culture.
But the Pharisee party didn’t give up. They appealed to the fact that Jesus only preached to Jews (Matthew 10:5, 15:24), and blamed the Apostles for introducing innovations.
Conscious of this, Matthew made a point of showing in his Gospel that God always intended to call the whole world to Jesus; it was just a matter of timing. So he told the story of some Gentile astrologers guided by a star to “pay homage” to “the King of the Jews.” He was saying that Jesus, as “King of the Jews,” is in fact King of the whole human race and “Universal Lord.” John L. McKenzie, S.J. (Dictionary of the Bible), says the Jewish concept of “Messiah” saw “the Israel of the future as identical with the universal kingdom of Yahweh.”
So Christians believe that every human being was created to receive eternal life through the knowledge of Jesus Christ (John 17:3). We believe God calls every person on earth, sooner or later, in some way or another, to believe in Jesus. This does not have to be by name. We think there are “anonymous Christians” who receive grace by “Baptism of desire,” although they have never heard the name of Jesus. Or perhaps they have had such a distorted experience of Christianity that they could never accept Christ as Savior or God. (The characteristics of their act of faith are explained in Why Jesus, chapter six, “Jesus Is An Inescapable Question”).
That is theology. What concerns us in practice is the attitude we ourselves take toward the kind of “cultural Christianity” we grew up with. Do we, like the Pharisees in the early Church, identify our religion with certain ways of expressing it—so much so that we resist any changes or innovations that would draw others in?
Pope Francis finds this spirit in those who “feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.”
A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others… It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity…
In some people we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few.
…No effort is made to go forth and seek out those who are distant or the immense multitudes who thirst for Christ...
Those who have fallen into this… reject the prophecy of their brothers and sisters, they discredit those who raise questions, they constantly point out the mistakes of others and they are obsessed by appearances... This is a tremendous corruption disguised as a good. We need to avoid it by making the Church constantly go out from herself, keeping her mission focused on Jesus Christ, and her commitment to the poor. God save us from a worldly Church with superficial spiritual and pastoral trappings… from self-centeredness cloaked in an outward religiosity bereft of God! (Joy of the Gospel, 93-97).
Those who understand the story of the Magi know that “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Colossians 3:11). And Christ in others is all they look for, no matter what form he takes.
(See Why Jesus?, chapter six: “Jesus Is An Inescapable Question,” offered free to the whole world by clicking on the book cover to the left.)
Question: Do you look first for the good or the bad, the true or the false in the way other people or cultures express their faith in God?