Forget greetings card images of three oriental kings offering gifts to a baby in a stable; the Epiphany story found in Matthew's Gospel is politically explosive – and politically incorrect!
We lose its impact because of storybook images that have grown up around it (Matthew doesn’t mention a stable; Mary and Joseph were simply living in a house in Bethlehem by then; the visitors were not kings, but astrologers; there were not three of them, just three gifts).
Why politically explosive? Because these men stride straight into the court of mafioso-style King Herod asking "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?" – and they didn’t mean Herod! Result: Jesus’ family flee as asylum-seekers, the stargazers slip Herod's noose, while the megalomaniac massacres every infant in Bethlehem.
From the very beginning Matthew’s Gospel is subversive – right to its end with Jesus dying on Caesar's Roman cross, but rising with "all authority on...earth". Jesus is a fundamental challenge to the political powers of the world, a danger to the powerful status quo.
For make no mistake: the true "king of the Jews", the Messiah, is also the true king of the whole world ( just read Psalm 2 and you'll get the idea).
And this leads us to why Matthew’s account would have been politically incorrect. Because these wise men are not Jewish scribes – they're foreigners (Persians) and followers of another religion (Zoroastrians)! Many of Matthew’s Jewish readers wanted a Messiah – but they wanted him for themselves. He was going to be king of the Jews for the Jews – and all those scummy pagans better watch their assess 'cos they were about to get whipped.
Matthew explodes all that – this king has come for all people, all races, all religions.
I have to ask (if I'm to avoid the cultural and religious complacency Matthew seems so determined to upset in his readers): what challenges might this explosive story bring to me? Is Jesus just for the Jesus Army? (Well, no, of course not.) Just for evangelicals? (Well, no. Sure?... Yeah, I'm sure.) Just for Christians? (Well, er...) Just for – people like me?
Maybe, Jesus is less for people like me, and more for, well – people like Him: asylum-seekers, abused children, displaced foreigners, people of 'the wrong' religion?
If Epiphany demolishes some of my small-minded assumptions and makes me uncomfortable, maybe it's because that's what Matthew intended.