At first glance, it seems odd that Matthew is the only gospel to record the events we commemorate on Epiphany: an unknown number of foreign visitors (no, there aren’t necessarily just three of them, they aren’t just “wise men,” and they’re almost certainly not “kings”) arrive to herald a toddler in Bethlehem.
It’s odd because Matthew’s gospel is the most distinctively Jewish of the four. It presents Jesus’ story through a more nationalistic lens than the others. Matthew’s Messiah is sent, it would seem, “only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
Matthew is steeped in Jewish tradition. Even its arrangement—consisting of five main sections or “books,” each building up to a major sermon or discourse from Jesus—mimics the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
Matthew takes pains to connect Jesus to the Jewish story, quoting regularly from the Hebrew prophets. The author bristles at the idea that Jesus did away with Jewish law, portraying him instead as the fulfillment or culmination of everything it taught. Even his movements read like a reenactment of Israel’s ancient story: there’s an escape to Egypt, a sojourn in the wilderness, the giving of the law from a mountainside, a Passover sacrifice.
What are pagan foreigners doing in such a story?
I can see why it would be tempting to recast them as something more palatable or generic—as “wise men” or “kings,” for example. But in Matthew they are magoi. This is the Greek word from which we get our word magician. In ancient times, it often referred to priests (or adherents) of Zoroastrianism, a religion predating Christianity by centuries.
It is possible that Matthew included the magi to emphasize their “submission and capitulation to a greater power,” as theologian Ian Paul put it. This would not be out of character for a story with nationalist overtones such as Matthew, having a group of pagan foreigners pay homage to a Jewish king.
But the magi serve as more than subjugated vassals in Matthew’s story. They actually do something quite significant. They delegitimize the very power structure of Roman-occupied Judea. They’re like the child pointing out that the emperor—in this case, Herod, client king of Judea—has no clothes.
Think about it. The magi arrive at Herod’s palace and ask for his help locating “the king of the Jews.”
No wonder he was mad.
Later, they defy Herod’s orders—and in doing so, they help save Jesus’ life—by returning home without revealing to Herod the identity of his toddling rival.
The magi traveled a great distance to pay homage to Jesus. Whether they saw him simply as a human king or as something greater (either is possible, given the context), in some meaningful way they placed their hope for the future in his hands. Stranger still, God returned the favor. By including the magi in his story, God-in-the-flesh put his very life in their hands.
In addition, the magi help to bookend Matthew’s gospel in a most appropriate way.
At the beginning of Matthew, the nations come to Jesus, in the form of the magi. They find welcome there. They offer something of value, more than just the gifts they carry. At the end of Matthew, Jesus commissions his Jewish disciples to go to all nations and serve them by sharing—and enacting—the good news about him, far beyond their narrow borders.
This, perhaps, is the most Jewish thing of all about Matthew’s gospel.
Jesus’ ancestors were always meant to be a “kingdom of priests,” sharing God’s light with the other nations. Their restoration alone was always “too small a thing” in God’s eyes. Salvation and renewal were gifts meant for the whole world.
They are gifts we share.
By starting with the magi and ending with a commission to serve all nations, Matthew shows how God’s people can fulfill God’s vision for the world: by refusing to be a group that exists solely for its own benefit. By sharing the light that has illumined our own hearts with the rest of the world. But also, as the magi teach us, by learning to see something good in those who are not like us—by learning to receive the gifts they have to offer, just as Jesus received gifts from a band of foreign priests.
This Epiphany, may we share and receive light with and from those around us—including and especially those we may be tempted to write off as “outsiders.”