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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Insights from Outsiders
distributed 12/13/01 - ©2001

Insights from Outsiders was substantially revised a decade after this 2001 version.

The Three Kings are a beloved and familiar part of the Christmas story. They turn up in carols, devotional artwork, New Yorker cartoons and Monty Python movies.

Of course, if you read Matthew, you'll find that the Epiphany story isn't about three kings, but an un-numbered collection of astrologers. That just goes to show that people often learn Bible stories better through music and artwork than from actually reading scripture.

Looking at the text, rather than singing the carol, reveals an important and surprising message for the contemporary church.

The wandering star-gazers who are at the heart of the story were going about their normal work, observing the movement of stars and planets, and discerning significance in those celestial events. They saw an important star "at its rising," and the specialized knowledge of their profession told them that this said something about a new king born among the Jews. So they went to Jerusalem, the capitol city of the Jews, to pay a visit.

This came as a rude shock to King Herod, who did not observe the stars, but who carefully observed any threat to his power. Herod called in his advisors, and told them to tap into their sources of revelation and wisdom -- the scriptures -- and thereby flesh out the secular message of the foreign astrologers, a message that he took very seriously.

When told to look for leads on unexpected kings, the biblical scholars found a passage that they had not previously discerned as pertinent for their own time: that a shepherd king would come from Bethlehem.

Herod takes seriously both the Magi and his own advisors. He learns from the outsiders when the star appeared, marking the birth of the contender to the throne, and sends them on to Bethlehem, hoping that they will serve as his spies and identify this new king.

Lo and behold, all of the messages were true! The wise guys find the child, present gifts, and hightail it out of Judea. Herod has less success figuring out who is the special child in town, so he slaughters all of the baby boys. He took no chances about the truth of the astrologer's interpretation.

The Epiphany story is often referred to as "the revelation to the Gentiles," because those non-Jewish astrologers did come to see that important things were happening in Bethlehem. But the important part of the story for us is what we might call "the revelation through the Gentiles."

It was through the secular message from the Persian astrologers that Herod became aware of the birth of Jesus. The insights of the Magi led Herod, the chief priests and the scribes to a remarkable new understanding of what was happening in their world. And that message was confirmed by a fresh reading of scripture.

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So what is the message for us in all of this?

It is the humbling news that those outside of our faith traditions may be the ones to discern most clearly what is happening, and where God is at work. It may not be theologians or denominational executives who are aware of significant signs and portents.

Today, environmental biologists and atmospheric physicists, going about their routine, secular work, see an important message in the evidence that they are paid to observe and analyze. They see ecological collapse and global climate change as present realities. And like the Magi twenty centuries ago, some of those scientists have come to the political and religious leaders to share their important news. A critical message about what is going on in the world comes, not from the church, but from secular researchers.

There is a further parallel in the story that is even more striking. The priests and scribes, when alerted to the message from the Magi, discovered themes and insights in scripture that they had never perceived before. So, too, today's biblical scholars and theologians, alerted to an environmental perspective, are rediscovering parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition that help us understand how we fit into the whole web of God's creation.

A profound revelation about the nature of our faith, about our place and purpose in creation, has come to the church from an unexpected source -- from the realm of secular science.

Herod and his religious cohorts responded to the message with fear. Similarly, many of today's leaders -- political and religious -- are responding defensively and destructively to the revelations of science. But fortunately, there are folk in the church -- a growing number, including some key leaders -- who have been more open to this transforming revelation. There are people of faith who have been touched by the scientific message, and have been opened to fresh understandings of their own spiritual journey, and of humanity's relationship with all of God's creation.

In this Christmas season, let us give thanks that God continues to speak to our world, even through the most unexpected of sources. And let us give thanks for all the faith communities who have discerned how the message of today's Magi calls us into a new and faithful ethic of global relationship with the entire web of life.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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