On coming to the house, the Magi saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.-Matthew 2:11-12
The 2022 World Cup is built on a paradox: Global club football consolidates wealth in traditional white European powerhouses and is bad for the game, but global club football allows players to access merit-based playfields and build allyship relationships across countries and is good for solidarity and building coalitions of justice which, we hope, will one day tear down FIFA itself.
This paradox spins me in circles, like the Wise Men tracing a finicky star.
The Wise Men are in some ways throw-away characters, independently wealthy foreigners who dip into the plot just to ratchet up King Herod’s evil and highlight king Jesus’ omnipotence. And then they drop out of existence just in time to miss a massacre which, arguably, they caused. What the hell? Where is the moral?
The Wise Men’s disappearance preserves the life of God Incarnate, but also causes a cascade of events that ends in the death of dozens (hundreds?) of Bethlehem’s baby boys. Were the Wise Men in the right? How do we reconcile the consequences?
We live in a culture obsessed with doing everything “to scale”; this is what drives FIFA’s bull-headed move to expand the tournament in 2026.
The more I read the Advent story this year, the more I hear Jesus’ birth as an argument against scale. Our ability to scale is so mismatched with our ability to perceive consequences. King Herod responds to the Wise Men by murdering baby boys at scale; Jesus does, eventually, bring down the Roman Empire and Herod’s kingdom, but only generations after Herod dies and Jesus dies, is buried, and resurrected.
By whose hand does God’s kingdom arrive? In the Advent story, one faithful person’s choice cannot be disentangled from the other. There is no scale in Gospels, just a butterfly effect of justice arriving.
It’s not that God hates scale; it’s that God does not ask us to scale. The Wise Men, in theory, have the power and resources to fund Jesus’ ministry from birth to untimely death. They could scale this story in another direction. But they do not stick around for Jesus’ life.
They do their best to identify the right action, and are doubtless astounded by how the future spools out of their one decision to return by another road. It isn’t our job to scale; it is our job to do the next right thing. This is not a satisfying resolution to the paradox, but it is a faithful one.