Feast of the Epiphany – January 5, 2014

A few weeks ago I read an editorial* about an on-going trend in corporate America. An increasing number of employers are spending large amounts of resources to promote a “fun” atmosphere in the workplace. The justification for these expenditures is the belief that happy workers are productive workers. One employer cited by the author does weekly assessments of employees’ “happiness ratings.” The author’s objection to “fungineering” (which looks to me like it ought to have more to do with fungi than fun), wasn’t that work shouldn’t be fun; rather, he objected to the contrived attempts to create artificial fun where none would otherwise exist.

The obvious problem with interjecting “fun” into the workplace is that it can be very coercive, and even well-intended coercion puts inappropriate limits on the freedom of individuals. The argument that the individuals are “better off” because they’ve been given a greater level of perceived satisfaction at work doesn’t justify the infringement on their personal freedom. I thought of that editorial when I read this Sunday’s Gospel, although the connection between the two is obscured by the translation of the Gospel used in the Lectionary.

The Lectionary says that the magi “were overjoyed at seeing the star.” (Matthew 2:10) The word “overjoyed” is a good English word, used commonly in conversation, that expresses a heightened degree of delight. Unfortunately, “overjoyed” doesn’t quite express what the Gospel says. The author of the Gospel wrote, “Upon seeing the star they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

The Gospel connotes an uncommon overabundance of extraordinary happiness. A string of superlatives like this sounds comical in English, but rendering these words into Standard English washes out a great deal of the meaning. The extraordinary joy of the magi has a literary purpose beyond giving us an insight into their psyches. The overwhelming delight they experienced serves as a sharp contrast to the overwhelming dread experienced by Herod and the residents of Jerusalem.

When Herod learned from the magi that a new King had been born in Judah “he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:3) Evidently, Herod was the sort of ruler who imposed his worries and concerns on this subjects. According to the few records we have from the time, Herod was the stuff of nightmares; He was the sort of person for whom the metaphor was coined: “walking on eggshells.” The mere coincidence of living in the same city with him required that everyone tread lightly, lest they makes themselves the undeserving victims of his wrath.

The exceedingly great joy of the magi stands in sharp contrast to the distress and fear of Herod. Sadly, we lose that contrast in the current translation of the Lectionary. The Gospel author wants us to see the difference between Herod’s distressed spirit and the magi’s great joy. Herod was thrown into distress and confusion as a result of the message of the magi, but the magi’s joy was undiluted despite Herod’s disordered fear. This is instruction from the Gospel author, not about emotion or sentiment, but about an essential characteristic of faith.

In the Sinai covenant, the Israelites gave their free assent to a relationship with God. It was their free choice to mark the doorposts and lintels of their homes with the blood of the passover lamb. It was their free choice to follow Moses to the land of promise. The several times that they fell away from faith were instances of complaining that they had been forced into the desert against their will. Their denial of their own free choice was what abrogated their covenant relationship with God.

The same dynamic is at work in our baptismal covenant with Jesus the Savior. Faith is a free choice that comes with responsibilities. “Sin” occurs when we deny our free action, or when we shirk the responsibilities that result from that free action.

God does not coerce us into believing; it remains always a free act. God does, however, expect that we live up to the responsibilities attendant on freedom: having made a choice for faith, we are obliged to fulfill on the promises of baptism. I was reminded of the editorial from a few weeks ago because the author was so annoyed with the efforts of a few people who thought they knew what was best for workers. It’s not much of an overstatement to say that those employers are “playing God” with the freedom of their employees. God, however, does not act in that way. God knows what is best for us, but God leaves us free to choose for ourselves.

A great many people fail to understand this basic truth about faith in Jesus: it can only be a free choice, and it can only promote human freedom. Why was Herod so distressed, and why were the magi unaffected by his disordered life? The magi freely chose to follow the guidance of the star, and they gave gifts of tribute, not because they were obliged to do so, but because they thought it appropriate. They lived in real freedom, and “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

Obedience to God’s will is a responsibility of the life of faith, but it’s not something that takes away our freedom. Responsibility is itself an uniquely free act, and one that helps us grow in freedom. The joy that the Gospel promises is not a coerced state of mind; it is the uncommon and extraordinary experience of living in true freedom. The magi knew this, but Herod did not. Despite his power and wealth Herod lived and died a slave to his fears and disorders; the magi lived in great joy.

(*”Who Goes to Work to Have Fun?” was written by Oliver Burkeman, and appeared in the December 11, 2013 edition of the New York Times.)