Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Fourth Wise Man That Wasn't


[For your Christmas enjoyment, and maybe a little edification, I offer this short story I wrote a few years back.]

           The assembly had disintegrated into raucous shouts and groans only minutes after the Grand Vizier had called it to order.  He should have known that this would be the case, since Balthasar and his colleagues were known for their controversial notions.  Why, the vizier wondered, did they insist on putting such ludicrous theories forward?  Legends surrounding that foreign master of the magi of long ago had been nearly erased from their collective memory, but now Balthasar was bringing them up again.   The suggestion that the appearance of one particular conjunction of stars was the fulfillment of some long-forgotten promise of a king with universal significance strained the patience of even the most open-minded of the wise.  And this was no time to be thinking about off-beat ideas that could derail the progress the magi had been making.
            The Vizier let his thoughts turn with satisfaction to the steady increase in importance that their exclusive fraternity had experienced during his leadership.  The world’s leaders were once again interested in what the wise men from the east had to say.  It had been a rough few centuries for them, ever since Alexander and his armies had swept through Persia like a grass fire in late summer, displacing not only the old empire, but the old empire’s advisers as well.  Now, following the disintegration of Greek rule and the ascendancy of the Romans, kings throughout the east (and even toward Rome in the west) were seeking out the magi once again. 
            They had carefully protected and cultivated their reputation for special wisdom, studying their books and rehearsing their legends.  Those who practiced the magic arts could always amaze, but such tricks did little more than keep the general population in awe.  It took the vast reservoir of facts and insights gained over centuries for the skillful wise man to create in his king or prince that sense of dependence that secured the magi’s power.  Rulers, fearful of the threat of the Romans or the challenge of the Parthians, were offering great wealth and honor to obtain the services of some of the magi for their courts.
It was at such an opportune moment that Balthasar chose to present his ideas and plan, asking his compatriots to risk the ridicule of all those kings and princes whose support has been so difficult to regain.  And for what purpose?  To follow an unfamiliar star foramtion toward the heart of unfriendly territory to find this mysterious king of a people that has no real political significance.  The Jews groaned under Roman rule through the puppet king, Herod (an obnoxious and vain man whose enemies had a nasty habit of dying untimely deaths).  They had no need of magi—new king or not.  They needed a better army than Rome’s, and no one seems to have found one. 
            The Vizier thought about Balthasar’s words.  “We believe that our ancient master, Belteshazzar, was more than just a wise man,” he had proclaimed once again.  “His wisdom was unparalleled in the days of Nebuchadnezzar, who believed him a prophet of the one true God.”
            This had sparked the first reaction among his fellow magi, of course, for their own belief in one god had put them at odds with much of society.
            Balthasar had continued, “Belteshazzar received many visions and dreams that spoke of the future of his people and of the kingdoms that would rise and fall around them.  His words accurately foretold Alexander’s rise and fall, and the coming of the Romans.”
Some of the magi scoffed at this, others bristled at the suggestion that one of their number had accurately foretold what so many others had missed.
“He predicted the coming of a king among his people who would be God’s deliverer of mankind.  We believe this new star is the announcement of that king’s birth.”
No more could be said above the assembly’s shouts of derision.  Balthasar’s friends, Melchior and Gaspar, both touched his arm and shook their heads in disappointment.  They were alone in their convictions, and their fellow magi would not listen any further.
Most of their number had left the meeting place, but those three still stood together, talking quietly among themselves.  The Vizier felt compelled to speak to them.
“I told you it was useless, Balthasar.  No one wants to be reminded of old fables that put most of our ancestors in an unfavorable light.”
“The truth about our past is reflected in our stubbornness today,” replied the old man. “Daniel’s (Balthasar slipped into using Belteshazzar’s Hebrew name) truthfulness was not diminished by the jealousy of the other magi then, and we believe we can trust what we have learned through studying his life and teachings.  Why can’t a man like yourself see that our plan holds out the promise of a discovery beyond any of our wildest dreams?”
The Vizier thought for a second before replying.  “You are correct in saying that, if you are right, your discovery might be amazing.  But consider the risks.  This proposed expedition will cost you more than just your fortunes.  If you are wrong, your reputations will be lost forever, as would that of anyone willing to go with you.  You are staking all on the words of a long dead sage.  You believe the deliverer of the world may be born among an enslaved people, and that a star has appeared to announce this?  No, my friends, your quest is too ridiculous to imagine joining.  I urge you to forget this nonsense, stay at home, and enjoy your privileges and prosperity.  Few have what you possess.”
“That is true, wise one.  But we have decided we would trade all we have to discover if God has truly sent this promised King.  If such a king has been born, then we will gladly lose all else to know of him.”
What would it be like to discover the savior of the world, the Vizier wondered.  Certainly such a journey, with a company of genuinely interesting (if slightly unpredictable) men in search of this king would be remarkable.  But it would undoubtedly be for nothing.  No, he would not go.  He would do what magi did best—go with the established wisdom.  And the established wisdom was that money and power in one’s possession secured all the future you could hope to have.
“Farewell, my friends.  I shall miss your company.  When you return, I shall do what I can to help you get back to your normal lives here.
“Thank you, wise one,” Balthasar replied, “but if we return, we believe we will have news that will keep life from ever being what it was.”
As they left his presence, the Vizier said to himself that if that were to be the case, then perhaps it would be best for them not to come back.