It’s funny that they have come to be known as the wise men.
In the biblical accounts, they were referred to as “magi,” and for the Jewish audience of the first century this was not, by any stretch of the imagination, to be considered as complimentary.
You see, the Greek definition of “magi” is not one of intellectual brilliance, but rather of magicians or astrologers, characters disdained by the Jews. In fact, the Old Testament is replete with criticisms of magicians and astrologers.
Thus, these magi would have been looked down upon by most people in Israel.
These so-called wise men weren’t recognized in their time as being all that wise – not by their own people or even Herod and his Jewish brain trust.
I mean, Herod and his counselors must have been amused by the visit from these foreigners, but they weren’t impressed enough to question or follow these strange visitors and their strange hypothesis.
And it doesn’t appear that these travelers from the east made that great of an impression with their own people.
After all, nothing radical seems to have taken place after their visit and their most amazing discovery. There were no follow-up visits or pilgrimages of any sort.
You can’t help but get the feeling that the magi’s return was met with as much skepticism as their departure months earlier.
In fact, I have often imagined developing a great short story by relating this adventure from the perspective of the wise men’s wives’ points of view.
So then, what made these men, ignorant of Scripture and shallow in the ways of theological tradition, wise?
Well, it seems to me that what made these magi wise is the same thing that makes anyone wise.
It’s not so much a matter of one’s intelligence quotient or the genius of one’s thinking as it is the commitment of one’s heart.
For whatever reason it was that led them to Bethlehem, they were still magi until they came into the presence of the Christ Child. And it was in the mystery of that moment that their hearts were so touched that they bowed in reverence.
It was that experience of coming to Christ, as we Baptists like to say, that changed their way of thinking so much that they returned home a different way.
And while the text most probably meant that in geographic terms, I can’t help but think that there is a spiritual connotation as well.
One other factor in their becoming wise was their ability to be prepared. In coming to Christ, they had the forethought to bring gifts – gifts that spoke of whom they were and whom he was.
The gold, frankincense and myrrh have been analyzed by theologians for centuries as to their meanings.
Whatever value one attaches to these symbols, it seems to me that they represent the best that these men had to offer.
It is not so much their gifts as their spirits that reveal their wisdom. They are thoughtful, generous and reverent in what they bring. And for that reason, they become wonderful guides for us in this Advent season.
I say that because as an integral part of our Advent preparation, our church, like most across the U.S., are including the consideration of our gifts.
The ecclesiastical word we sometimes use in defining this is “stewardship.” It’s a good word that some of us in the church have been apologetic about, worried that the world sees us as only asking for money.
Unfortunately, the problem of the local church is not so much one of talking too often about money and resources, but too seldom because materialism is the spiritual issue of our time.
Thus, as we make our way to Bethlehem, one of the spiritual disciplines we ought to consider is what we wish to give to Christ this year.
It will entail some serious spiritual introspection. After all, what do you give for someone who has given you everything?
It is my fervent hope and prayer that our journey to Christmas will enable us to make discoveries that make us wise indeed.
Mike Massar is pastor of University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and transitional coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Louisiana. A version of this column first appeared in the church’s weekly newsletter, The Window, and is used with permission.