“Gaspar!” my master said to me, “Can’t you get anything right?”
You must understand how hard it is to please the wise men of my country. When they study the stars from their rooftops and make their charts, they speak in code that’s impossible to understand.
“There it is,” Melchior said.
Balthasar pointed upward, a little to the northeast. “I see it!”
See what? There were a billion stars up there. Supposedly they saw a configuration they had never seen before. I was awed by their ability to interpret what I could not even see. What was so exciting that they would shout and awaken the neighbors? “What is it?” I asked.
Balthasar looked at me like I had done something wrong. “Gaspar, your camels need attention!”
“Yes, sir,” I said. I bowed and left. That’s when I started thinking. This is the first rule of wisdom: “You must learn to think.”
I checked, but there was nothing wrong with the camels. They were bedded for the night, same as usual. Surely, Melchior and Balthasar, being wise, already knew that. So why did they send me to check on something that didn’t need to be checked? This is the second rule of wisdom: “You must learn to ask questions.”
That’s when it hit me like the sun rising above the sand dunes. Wise men don’t answer questions. They look at the stars and write their encouragements and warnings. People listen to their predictions, believe what they want, and ignore the rest.
My Jewish friends were different from the wise men. They had come from a land far to the west. I could ask them anything. They told me about their God. They talked about a savior king who would come someday—someone called a “messiah.”
I asked Melchior if he knew about a promised king of the Jews, but he didn’t answer. Wise men give only their wisdom. All he said was, “The king who rules well lives long.” Balthasar said, “If a king were coming, we would see it in the stars. We have seen nothing.”
On one moonless night, the stars were so bright they cast a shadow. Most of them twinkled, but a few did not. Melchior said the steady stars were the most significant because their paths were different. When I asked why, his look said it was not proper to ask such questions. “We only observe and interpret,” he said.
Apparently I was wrong about the second rule of wisdom. If I wanted to be a wise man, I needed to learn not to ask questions, just observe and interpret. So that’s what I tried to do. While I studied the skies, I wondered how Melchior could tell if anything was different from the night before. Then I saw something. I pointed up and to my left. “What is that star? The one in the constellation Leo.”
Melchior didn’t even look up from his charts. “It’s only a star,” he said.
“Why does it have a tail?” I asked. “I’ve never seen a star with a tail before.”
Melchior looked at Leo, but he couldn’t see the star. Old men may be wise, but they don’t see very well. I could see it clearly. Why couldn’t he see it? When Balthasar came to the rooftop, he said, “Young eyes imagine foolish things, but wise men see the truth.”
I turned toward the steps. “I think I need to check on the camels.”
I was not imagining things. Each day, the star brightened as it pointed westward and moved ever so slightly.
A week later, Melchior saw the star. Balthasar saw it too. They checked their charts and tried to convince me that they had anticipated the miracle months ago and were merely waiting for the star’s appearance. I didn’t argue, but I was the one who had to tell them the meaning of the star.
The next day, Melchior and Balthasar showed so much excitement you would have thought they were Jewish. “The promised king has been born,” they proclaimed. “He is the one who will save Israel.”
The leaders of the Jewish community met to determine what should be done. “We must send him precious gifts,” one man said. They collected money from their people and purchased lavish amounts of frankincense and myrrh. They appointed Melchior and Balthasar to take the long journey to find the king and deliver the gifts. Tailors made colorful robes for them to wear. Since I was a young and insignificant servant, I was never a part of their plans.
Two days before they were to leave, Melchior came to me. “Gaspar,” he said, “we need a young man who will carry the gifts before the king.” He explained the procedure. I would walk ahead of them, carrying the two jars of precious fragrance.
I went to see the Jewish tailor, who was old enough to be my great grandfather. I wondered how he could see to use a needle. The care he took with fitting my blue tunic and burgundy robe made me feel important. No longer was Gaspar a servant who fed and watered camels. I felt special—elegantly dressed to meet a king.
“Wait,” the tailor said as I was about to leave. He went to the far end of the room, opened a wooden chest, and brought out what appeared to be a bowl wrapped in soft cloth. “My grandfather gave me this when I was only a child.” He caressed the fabric like someone saying good-bye to a dear friend. “It once belonged to King David, or so I have been told.”
“What am I supposed to do with it?” I asked.
He smiled as if he thought I was wise. “You will know,” he said, “when the time comes.”
I packed the garments and the bowl with all our other belongings. Melchior, Balthasar, I, and the other servants began the long journey. For many months, we braved hot days and cold nights across the desert sand. We huddled in our tents and covered our faces when high winds stirred the sands and darkened the sky. On clear nights, we watched the new star, but it faded and disappeared before we reached the land of Israel.
At the Temple in Jerusalem, Melchior approached one of the leading priests. “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” he asked. “We have seen the star signaling his birth and have come to honor him.” None of the priests or teachers had seen such a star. They knew nothing about any newborn king. Our questions created quite a stir among the merchants in the marketplace and people on the street, but no one would admit to any king other than Herod.
Melchior and Balthasar entered the palace to see the king. I waited outside. When they returned, I asked, “What happened? What did you find out?”
Melchior looked disappointed. “We must go back tomorrow.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Herod called a meeting of the chief priests and teachers of the Law and commanded them to tell him where the Anointed One was supposed to be born. Anyone who values his life would never withhold information from the king. They obviously did not know the answer.”
Balthasar’s smile broke into a laugh. “The priests and teachers may be searching the scrolls all night. He didn’t have to tell them what would happen if they didn’t have an answer by sunrise.”
All day we had searched for answers and found none. We camped outside the city. Melchior and Balthasar slumped back on their mats. I offered them a raisin cake, but they weren’t hungry. They didn’t have to say why. It appeared we might have travelled this distance for nothing. For me, a failed mission meant I had spent a long time away from home. But for wise men to be wrong was devastating. It meant a loss of respect.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “We know the king has been born. We have seen his star. The teachers will find the information we seek.” I then spent a sleepless night wondering if I was right.
I waited all morning for Melchior and Balthasar to return from the palace. What had gone wrong? I had about decided the priests had failed to answer Herod’s demands when I saw Melchior walking up the road.
Smiling, Balthasar walked past me into the tent. “Time to get dressed,” he said. “We’re going to find the king.”
I pulled out my tunic and robe. “Where is he?”
“In Bethlehem, just a few miles south from here,” Melchior said. “You were right. Their prophet Micah predicted his birth. But you, Bethlehem, are only a small village among the people of Judah. Yet out of you will come one who will rule Israel, whose origin is from ancient times. When we find him, we are to bring news to Herod so he can honor him as well.”
By the time we reached Bethlehem, it was getting dark. We had no idea where to find the king, so we stopped at the inn. While I was bedding the camels, I thought I recognized a man who, after I saw him, disappeared around the corner. He looked like the man who followed behind us when we left Jerusalem. When I was at the palace, wasn’t he the man who entered while Melchior was coming out? What interest could he have in what I was doing? I wondered.
Balthasar came toward me, pointing down the street. “The king is down there, the fifth house on the left. The innkeeper knew all about the child’s birth. Get the gifts.”
I had forgotten about the bowl that the old tailor gave me. I pulled it out and unwrapped the velvet layers. The glitter of the gold caught my breath. This was no bowl. It was a beautifully crafted crown. I felt like a king when I put the crown on my head and picked up the jars of frankincense and myrrh.
There was no mistaking the house, although it had no special markings. I motioned toward the dark sky above the roof. “Look,” I said, “our star is back. Its tail shines brightly.”
The father welcomed us. I expected him to ask why we had come, but he didn’t. I had dreamed of walking with gifts down a marble floor in a palace, not the dusty floor of a carpenter’s house. While Melchior and Balthasar talked to the father and told their story of the star and our long journey, I approached the youngster who sat on his mother’s knee. I placed each jar before them, bowed, and started to walk away.
Wait. Something was wrong. What was it? The crown weighed heavily upon my head as I realized I was no king. I was merely a servant whose greatest glory was in helping others. No, this crown belonged to the king I had come to honor. I bowed to the floor, placed the crown between the jars, and backed away. It was the wisest thing I ever did.
The next morning, we went to bid farewell to the king, but the house was empty. The carpentry tools, the sleeping mats—everything was gone.
I turned to Melchior and said, “I believe we have been followed. Somehow the family knew to flee. We should avoid Jerusalem and go home another way.”
Balthasar agreed. “I had a dream,” he said. “Soldiers are coming.”
As we left Bethlehem, I thought about all I had seen. I wondered what would become of the three gifts—the frankincense, the myrrh, and the gold crown. How would the new king ascend to his throne? I was no king. I wasn’t even a wise man. But I left Bethlehem with an even better assurance—to know I was the servant of one who would be the greatest king of all the kings who had ever ruled, the most supreme of all lords, and wisest of all wise men.
Frank Ball © 2010.