The turn of each calendar year is often filled with an influx of charitable giving, much of which intends to assist those far beyond the borders of the United States. As rigorous debates surround the ethics and oversight of such foreign assistance endeavors, one of the more innovative contributions to this important conversation was produced by South Africa's renowned theologian, the late Steve de Gruchy. In consideration of the Magi and their Epiphany visit with Joseph, Mary, and the newly-born Jesus in Matthew 2:1-12, de Gruchy offers a striking interpretation of the biblical text and considers its direct relationship with international relief efforts. As private giving directed to foreign aid continues to grow (from $8.4 billion in 2000 to $19.1 billion in 2012), de Gruchy shows how benevolent intent can lead to oppressive impact, and Epiphany provides important wisdom to navigate the complexities of our policies and practices. He wrote:
One of the ways of reading [Matthew 2:1-12] is to see how the Magi, from the east symbolize - in today's global configuration - people from the 'north' who possess wealth and wisdom, and who seek to contribute to those who are poorer than themselves.
Herod symbolizes the local elites that so often control the political economy of the 'south'. And the holy family symbolizes the millions of vulnerable people who live in poverty throughout the globe, predominantly in the 'south', but also in the 'north' (and 'east' and 'west'!).
In the story, the Magi from the 'north' first make contact with those in the 'south' whom they have an affinity, namely a representative of the political and economic elite, Herod (v.1). This elite has no interest in the vulnerable poor in their own country, and they seek, as always, to use those from the 'north' to serve their own ends (v.3).
However, the story turns on the fact that the Scriptures point the Magi to Bethlehem (v.5-6), where they learn that the one whom they must respect in God's scheme of things is not to be found in a palace, but in a humble shack. Their journey, guided by the words of the prophet (v.5) and God's star (v.6) lead them to meet the poor of the south in Mary, Joseph and Jesus.
As highlighted by de Gruchy, a key yet overlooked insight into this portion of the biblical narrative is how the Magi challenge the foreign aid community to reflect on its place - and reform its priorities - in an ever-changing and increasingly-connected world. For those with "wealth and wisdom" seeking "to contribute to those who are poorer than themselves", the Epiphany account pushes for a dramatic reconsideration of global relationships and an enlightenment of less than perfect methods of charity and so-called development programs. In doing so, Matthew's Gospel reveals how personal beliefs, political actions, and economic alliances have an impact on various communities thousands of miles away. As de Gruchy states:
Somehow, in their journey to the south, [the Magi] were touched by God's presence, became suspicious of the agenda of the local elite, and found joy in forging a relationship with the poor. They bow before the manger, and offer their gifts, symbolizing the self-emptying of power and the willingness to have their agenda shaped by the concerns of the 'south'.
These gifts are offered, moreover, not to bribe officials, create dependency, or leverage influence, but simply as a sign of homage and respect.
In striking fashion, the Magi within Matthews's narrative point toward enlightened concepts of foreign assistance and developmental efforts, for the sake of global companionships that affirm the poor as trusted subjects of history and not merely the juvenile objects. As expressed by Diana Ohlbaum, a significant amount of foreign giving has countless logistical and financial strings attached, due in part to a paternal and colonial desire to control the agendas of foreign companions (financial competitors). As a result, instead of allowing ideas to emerge from local communities and funding them to flourish, foreign assistance programs too often self-design their projects and dictate the details of implementation and accountability. Can we imagine the Magi from Matthew's Gospel acting in similar ways when opening their treasure chests for the Holy Family? Can we picture them dictating the terms by which Joseph and Mary utilized the gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Can we conceive of them insisting upon a reporting structure and over-reaching system of assessment (all while requesting a receipt for their tax deductions!)?
As the private philanthropy industry continues to expand its foreign reach, there exists an increasing degree of pressure to show fast and observable "progress" (that falls in line with the agendas of the elite). As a result, foreign assistance organizations have responded by exerting greater control over the ways in which programs are implemented, and the expectations placed upon the perceived effectiveness of such programs are both serious and numerous, which in turn begs the question: Who and/or what is actually being "assisted" through such foreign assistance? Is it the local communities, or perhaps the gifts are meant to serve King Herod-like imperial interests, or perhaps to relieve "those with wealth" from their prosperity guilt? In light of the Epiphany narrative, we are compelled to consider whether or not our giving is genuine if strings are attached to the so-called gift and chains are wrapped around their so-called recipients.
As the Magi were enlightened through God's presence in the Holy Family, the time is upon us to redefine our relationships and convert our various connections within the global village. Instead of foreign assistance programs that are too often shaped by the paternal priorities of the privileged and powerful, and in place of international development schemes repeatedly saturated with labels of "giver" and "receiver", we are moved to embody mutuality, companionship, and recognize the wisdom and assets of foreign communities. As we celebrate the ways that God continues to be manifested in and through our world, the Magi reveal that God is found in the long-term transformation of relationships and connections, thus we too are inspired to resist our imperial inclinations to accompany others for the sake of serving a global common good. As the Magi continue to reveal, such gifts without chains helps to bring real joy to all the world, so all may both give and receive.