Jesus and Sage

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him…

…After consulting his theologians, who confirmed from the prophet Micah that the real king would be born in Bethlehem, Herod despatched the Magi to go and locate the child so that he might worship him.... !

After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way (Matthew 2:1-12).

Dictionary definitions:

(i) ‘sage’ – a person revered for profound wisdom

(ii) ‘sage’ – a herbal plant whose leaves are used in cooking


And now, of course, ex-directory… 

(iii) SAGE: Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.


So, for many months we have awaited the doom-laden hour of 5 o’clock when

‘king’ Boris appears at the daily press conference flanked by his two chief sages, unkindly dubbed by a cartoonist as ‘Moreglum and Wise’!

Accompanied by the now-familiar gospel mantra: ‘We must follow the science.’


All well and good, you might say.  But my unease was in the use of the definite article – the science.  As I quickly learned from the discussions that broke out in the media, there is no such one thing as the science.  Only scientists – plural – with their varied expertise, opinions and prognoses who went public to air their nuanced or sometimes contrary views of the matter!  Two main ‘scientific’ approaches emerged:  What might be deemed speculative science and what might justifiably claim to be empirical science.


For me, more speculative science seemed to be represented by Professor Ferguson of London with his team of ‘experts’ using computer-generated projections to predict half a million deaths from Covid by Christmas.  Such speculation inevitably envisaged the ‘worst-case scenario’ – presented to us as graphs from the media-magi alongside the PM.   Such graphs eventually turned out to be not entirely reliable and the outcome was powerfully fear- inducing!   It often seemed more like educated guesswork than true science. Little different from reading the runes or, for that matter, ancient astrology.  Is this too unkind a conclusion? Perhaps. After all, most scientific endeavour involves experimentation, trial and error, and leaps of imagination, and, no doubt, computer modelling! 



Listen to what best-selling author and Harvard surgeon Atul Gawande says:

“We look for medicine to be an orderly field of knowledge and procedure. 

But it is not.  It is an imperfect science, an enterprise of constantly changing knowledge, uncertain information, fallible individuals, and at the same time lives on the line. There is science in what we do, yes, but also habit, intuition, and sometimes plain old guessing.”  (Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science)


I recalled a line from T.S.Eliot: ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?’  

At Christmas I sang James Montgomery’s famous carol ‘Angels from the realms of glory’ with fresh impetus, slightly adapting verse three:

“Sages leave your computations.  Brighter visions beam afar.”


All this served to remind me that wisdom is the application of knowledge to practical good.  And so, thankfully, came the empirical science of the creative geniuses of Pfizer and now Oxford/AstraZeneca.  Led by the brilliant Oxford scientists, Professors Sarah Gilbert and Teresa Lambe, the ‘women-in-white-coats’ rode over the hills to the rescue with a Covid vaccine.  Did you see the BBC Panorama documentary interviewing the team and hearing of their dedicated work? 

I was genuinely moved by it.


Here was reliable, factual, tested, evidence-based science. I marvelled and gave thanks – as I am sure we all do – for the God-given gifts of such scientific learning and applied science.  Especially now that Mary and I have received our first jabs!

Wonder of wonders, what such research stimulates is not fear but faith and hope. Even more for believers, we may take heart from renowned Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann when he says in his ‘tract for the times’, Virus as a Summons to Faith: ‘The end of such wonder may happily come in the form of a vaccine.  But its beginning is in the fear of the Lord.’


Above all, I want to reassure you at the start of 2021 that however long it takes for the dark shadow of this virus to be lifted from us, “a greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42).  ‘In Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Colossians 2:3).  In his learned book Jesus the Sage, Ben Witherington concludes that

the Evangelists make clear that ‘Jesus was not just another sage or teacher,

but the teacher – Wisdom.’

In exploring this truth, I am currently being helped by reading two insightful books by the Southern Baptist New Testament scholar, Jonathan Pennington.  Let me share with you briefly from them. In his recent book, Jesus, the Great Philosopher, Pennington reminds us that ‘philosophy’ literally means ‘love of wisdom’ and that Jesus epitomises it.  In The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, Pennington comments on Jesus’ teaching that it is a wise person who builds upon the rock of His words (Matthew 7:24-27): ‘while Jesus is certainly presented as both Prophet and Sage, he is also repeatedly offered as more than these roles – the true and final source of revelation itself’ and that ‘his hearers are invited to build the foundation of their whole lives upon his teaching and way of being in the world’. 

Jesus is our wisdom for living the good and God-honouring life in this world in the light of God’s kingdom which is here and yet still to come.

As Pennington goes on to say, Jesus ‘is presenting himself as the authoritative arbiter of God’s revelation and the path to human flourishing’.


So, perhaps you stuffed the Christmas turkey with sage and onion.

In this New Year, let’s resolve to fill our minds with Jesus, the true wisdom of God and pay more attention to his daily briefings.

However many there were, the wise men followed the ‘science’ they knew and it led them to follow the star.

Amazingly, as Benedict XVI reminds us of the infant Jesus: ‘It is not the star that

determines the child’s destiny, it’s the child that directs the star.’

Wise men came once to Jesus as the secret of the stars: wise men and women still do.  And we do not need PhDs to bow to the Jesus who thanked His Father for hiding these things from the wise and understanding and revealing them to little children.


As a child I was entranced by Christina Rossetti’s carol, ’In the Bleak Midwinter’, especially the last verse: “What can I give him, poor as I am!  If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; If I were a wise man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give him: give my heart”.  And over seventy years ago, I did! 


Drawn to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem by the star, the ancient sages worshipped Jesus and gave him their treasure.  For them, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: ‘None of the old maps worked anymore.  They would find a new way home.’  Then ‘they lined up in front of the baby to thank him for the gifts he had given them.  “What in the world are you talking about?” the baby’s mother laughed, and they told her so she could tell him later.  For “the love we found here”; for “baby flesh”; and for “a really great story” they said, one by one.’ 

Warned in a dream of Herod’s violent plans, they decided to steer clear of Jerusalem and return by a different route.  So, says Barbara Taylor: ‘The wise men trooped outside, stretched, kissed the baby goodbye and went home by another way.’


So I pray that we too may follow His Star and find the wisdom and fresh heart to keep on going home by Another Way.