taking the words of Jesus seriously

January 6 has long been celebrated as the traditional day of Epiphany, the day the wise men came to worship Jesus. Need I say more? We all know the story, or have at least seen the nativity, with the three wise men crowded around the baby Jesus holding their individual gifts. It’s a scene overcrowded with folks usually portrayed in semi kneeling / standing fashion next to an assortment of goats, cows, and the occasional chicken.

Which begs the question: Is this accurate? Not did all these things happen but is this how the scene actually appeared? When Christ was born did Mary and Joseph experience a solemn evening with some foreign wise men, animals, and shepherds or was something else going on?

The fact that Epiphany is traditionally celebrated on January 6 should help answer this question. Contrary to nativity appearances, Scripture clearly indicates that the wise men did not find Christ in the manger but instead in a house (Matthew 2:11). Aside from this detail, however, Scripture is quite silent when it comes to providing some information on who these wise men actually are.

We know from Matthew 2:1 that these wise men came from “the east.” In terms of biblical historicity this is most likely referring to Persia or what is today, Iran. In other words, they are outsiders. The wise men are, more than likely, not Jews, they do not follow the laws of Moses nor do they circumcise their children. Furthermore, they are not Romans. They are not people Mary and Joseph would have been familiar with nor are they people who would have traditionally been associated with the revealing of the newborn King of the Jews. Simply put, these are the wrong people.

Or are they? What if the message this newborn King of the Jews was to preach included all peoples, not just the Jews? Now that would be counter-cultural.

Many years back I was out in Honolulu for a speaking engagement. Given that I am from the east coast I tend to rise a bit before dawn when in Honolulu (they are six hours behind the time I am accustomed to). With this background you should understand why at 3:30 in the morning I was wandering up and down the streets of Honolulu looking for a place to get something to eat.

I found myself in a little place that was still open. Upon receiving my usual coffee and doughnut I proceeded to find a booth where I could sit and enjoy my breakfast in relative silence. Much to my surprise, and discomfort, no sooner had I taken my first bite when the door swung open and in marched eight or nine provocative and boisterous prostitutes.

It was a small place so they sat on both sides of me. Their talk was loud and crude. I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman sitting beside me say, “Tomorrows my birthday. I’m going to be thirty-nine.” This statement was met by a chuckle from her friend who replied with no more than a “so, what ya want from me.”

“Come on”, the woman sitting next to me replied. “I’m just saying, tomorrows my birthday. I don’t need anything from you. I don’t need anything from anyone. No one has ever given me anything, not even a birthday party, why would I expect one now?”

Upon hearing this dialogue I made a decision. I waited until the women had left and approached the counter and asked the man, “Do they come in here every night?” He replied that they did and informed me that the woman sitting next to me was named Agnes.

I replied, “I heard Agnes say that her birthday was tomorrow, what do you say you and I do something about that? Let’s throw a birthday party for her – right here – tomorrow night?” A cute smile came across the mans face as he ran to tell his wife who was the cook in the back.

At 2:30 the next morning I arrived at the little restaurant carrying pieces of a sign I made that read, “Happy Birthday Agnes” and I proceeded to decorate the entire diner from one end to the other. I had that diner looking good. The man at the diner had volunteered to make the cake which was decorated in beautiful fashion.

The owners of the restaurant must have spread the word because by 3:15 the place was filled with every prostitute in Honolulu. And at 3:30 on the dot the diner door swung open and in walked Agnes and her friend.

Never have I seen a person so flabbergasted. . .so stunned. . .so shaken. Her mouth fell open. Her legs seemed to buckle. As she was led by her friend to sit on one of the stools we all sang “Happy Birthday” to her as her cake was carried out and set before her. Needless to say she was in tears.

Agnes looked down at the cake. Then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, “Look, is it all right with you if I. . .I mean is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? If we don’t eat it right away?” The man at the restaurant replied, “Sure! It’s OK. If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want to.”

“Can I?” she asked. Then, looking at me she said, “I live just down the street a couple of doors. I want to take the cake home, OK? I’ll be right back. Honest!”

She got off the stool, picked up the cake, and carrying it like it was the Holy Grail, walked slowly toward the door. As we all stood there motionless, she left. When the door closed there was a stunned silence in the place. Not knowing what else to do, we prayed. We prayed for Agnes and her salvation, her life, and her family.

When I finished, the man from the diner leaned over the counter towards me and said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”

In one of those moments when just the right words came, I answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.”

The man waited a moment and then almost sneered as he answered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that!”

Churches like that are what God intended when he led three foreigners over a 900 mile distance to bring gifts to the newborn King of the Jews. Parties for prostitutes are part of this upside down Kingdom.

From the very beginning of Jesus’ life here on earth, God makes it clear that things will be different and that no longer will there be those who are in and those who are out. The story of the wise men and their journey to celebrate and bring gifts to the newborn King of the Jews expands God’s love to all people. . .even prostitutes.

About The Author


Tony Campolo is Professor of Sociology at Eastern University, and was formerly on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. For 40 years, he founded and led the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, an organization that created and supported programs serving needy communities in the Third World as well as in “at risk” neighborhoods across North America. More recently, Dr. Campolo has provided leadership for the Red Letter Christians movement. He blogs regularly at his own website. Tony and his wife Peggy live near Philadelphia, and have two children and four grandchildren.

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