The Neighbor and the King (homily)
January 8, 2006
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12, Ephesians 3:10
The gospel story today, the story of the magi, is a story of discernment. It’s a story about what we should do and how we should it.
“Where is the infant king of the Jews,” the wise men ask. Where is God? Where is Jesus in our lives and how do we find him?
And the answer is clear. The presence of God is like a star, sudden and beautiful and beyond our control. The wise men can’t make it appear, they can’t produce it. It’s a star, it’s a created thing, a wonderful thing, and they can only wait for it, only follow it. Or again, the presence of God is like a child, tiny and helpless and vulnerable, entirely human, entirely miraculous. All the wise men can do is fall to their knees, and that’s what we should do, not dominate and control but reverence and honor and respect.
Unlike Herod, the earthly king. Herod wants to know the “exact” date of the star’s appearance, Herod wants to have everything figured out, everything fixed and narrow and small, and then only so that he can be in charge of it and unchanged by it, only so that he can kill it.
Say you have an elderly neighbor who invites you to dinner and right away you accept, partly because she’s lonely and afraid, partly because she’s a really good cook and you really enjoy being with her. But then your boss invites you out that same night. You don’t get along with him, you’re uncomfortable around him, but you think, well, maybe I should cancel with my neighbor. Maybe I need to score points with the man in charge.
But that’s to think like Herod, to think in terms of violence and influence and power, which is of course what most of us do. Most of us, most of the time, choose the boss over the neighbor, we choose power, and then we try to justify it to ourselves, we try to forget about it and let it go. We do it over and over again, in a hundred subtle ways, until one day we wake up and we just don’t feel good about ourselves anymore, we feel lousy, and we don’t know why.
This is why.
How do we know the will of God in any particular situation? By thinking of how we can serve, not be served, by thinking of who is weak, not who is powerful, by surrendering our need for control and obeying the beauty and spontaneity of the moment.
Or let’s take a national issue, a political issue, and apply the wisdom of the wise men--let’s take the issue of immigration, since that’s the issue that the bishops have asked us to reflect on this Sunday. Millions of people in the world can no longer make an honest and dignified living in their own countries, for whatever reasons of violence and injustice, and so they seek a better life in other countries and often, especially, in our own. What is the Church’s response to this situation and what should be ours? From Pope Leo to Pope Pius to Pope John Paul, in papal document after papal document, the Church has made it clear that we are one people, that our unity is to be celebrated, that our diversity is to be celebrated, and that while each nation has the right to protect itself, we all have an obligation to make room for the dispossessed. And why is this? Why does the Church invariably reason in this way? Not because it’s been co-opted by a particular political philosophy but because it must think with the mind of Christ and feel with the heart of Christ. Because to deny life and dignity to any human being is to behave as Herod behaves, Herod the tyrant, Herod who kills whatever threatens him, whatever violates his own borders.
The star appears over a stable, not a mansion. It leads to a person, not a pot of gold. We can always be sure that we are doing the will of God when we side with the vulnerable, with the weak, with the helpless.
And of course in this way the personal and the political are really the same. The issues underneath are identical. All of us are afraid of the new and the different and the foreign, and yet it’s always impinging on our lives--new people, new ideas, new situations--we’re always being challenged to broaden our minds and our hearts, and faith wants us to be challenged like this. It wants us to be pushed. “How many-sided God’s wisdom is,” Paul says a little later in Ephesians today, a few lines after our reading, and that’s what God is always trying to offer us, as gift, the many-sided, the astonishing, the new.
The star that appears to the wise men violates all their preconceived notions. It doesn’t fit anything they’ve thought before. But they don’t reject it. In their intellectual humility, in their open-mindedness, they are able to see. “Look!” Isaiah urges us today. “Lift up your eyes and look around,” and the wise men do. They are changed and they are moved, because they don’t exclude any new information. They are not afraid of what they cannot understand.
Or let me put it this way. Let me conclude like this. How do we discern the will of God? How do we follow the child? By following our delight, by doing whatever it is that truly delights us, as the wise men, Matthew says, are “filled with delight” by the presence of the star. At the moment they see it they “grow radiant” with joy, in the words of Isaiah-- “their hearts throb and dilate”--and whenever we have that feeling, too, whenever our own hearts throb and dilate, that’s when we know God is with us. That’s when we know what it is we should do.
Say you’re an Engineering major but secretly want to major in Theater, or say you’re a Theater major but secretly want to major in Engineering. (It happens.) What is the gospel saying? What does it mean to be wise? Unless someone will be hurt by the change, unless someone else will suffer, change. Follow the star--which isn’t as easy as it sounds, not at all, because to follow a star takes alertness and openness, and that takes prayer, and time, and honesty, and patience, and hope. And you’ve got to show up in the first place, you’ve got to be there. The star appeared over everyone’s heads, after all, but not everyone saw it that night, and they still don’t.
Or sometimes, you’ve got to fall asleep. You’ve got to move from your head to your heart, deeper than your reason, which often is telling you lies, which is often operating out of fear, which is often acting as your own inner Herod. Move deeper, into the part of you that is still a child, the part of you that dreams and listens to dreams, as the wise men listen to theirs. Listen to yours. Deep down, in your truest self, you will be invited, you will be warned. Deep down, the child is waiting.
Yes, if you follow the star you’ll lose control. Yes, if you follow your dream you won’t know what will happen. Yes, it’s risky, it’s strange, it’s hard.
Exactly. That’s the way of Christ, that’s always the way, and whatever that means to you, right now, in your own life, whatever that requires, that’s what you should do.