Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
Christmas is the season when Christians remember the birth of Jesus as God’s greatest gift to humankind.
Not everyone, however, considers this celebration in the same way. In the ancient world, the Roman Empire viewed births as potential providers of service. As Luke relays the story, great gifts often come in surprising packages and reactions vary.
Luke was the only Gospel writer to situate Jesus’ birth on the Greco-Roman calendar. Augustus was emperor; Rome’s census was in process; Quirinius was Rome’s governor of the region of Syria, the area covering Judea. The reference to these leaders and the event of this public inspection mark dates in the ancient world. But this is not only about commemorating the historical event (see below). Luke did not ignore the miraculous for the mundane.
Jesus was born in the messianic lineage of David, through Joseph (who plays a minor one in the Gospel of Luke) (Luke 2:4). Attachment to David’s lineage provides its own claim-to-fame in an honor-shame society in which such connections establish the trajectories of the family’s life and livelihood. Despite the new, foreign world into which Jesus has been born — with all of its leaders and dignitaries — Jesus has his own rich lineage that includes kings and empires in the line of King David. Gabriel mentions it to Mary (1:32); Zechariah’s prophetic speech also acknowledged it (1:69). But this is only part of the miracle.
The Lord’s angel appeared to shepherds to announce Jesus’ birth, just as the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and to Mary in chapter 1. Outside of the first two chapters, angels are less active subjects. Only in Luke 24:4-10, do angels (in this case, two unnamed “men” dressed in “dazzling clothes” who were called “angels” at 24:23) speak significant words that move the story along. In chapter 2, they appear to shepherds.
There seems to be more to the shepherds’ presence than this visitation. In the beginning of this chapter, Luke is intent to emphasize the non-Jewish context of Jesus’ appearance. He came into a world shaped by Greco-Roman realities that placed political demands on people — like counting populations and lands, etc. Later in the chapter, Luke will balance that international narrative with a very local, Jewish one, including Mary and Joseph’s sacrifice according to Torah, Simeon’s (the priest’s) acceptance of Jesus and a female Temple prophet, Anna, offering proclamations about this messianic figure called Jesus (see also Luke 2:21-38). Before we get there Luke relays a story about a group of Jews who exist outside of the towns and villages doing the dirty work of caring for the villages’ sheep. While the profession was a necessary one, wisdom was not sought among shepherds (see also Sirach 38:24-34). Yet, the angel appeared to these field-dwellers. Perhaps only shepherds — a trade on the low end of the social scale — could actually visit Mary in that lowly place where God’s son was born.
From a Roman Emperor to unnamed shepherds who “live outdoors” (Greek agrauleo), the narrative shifts dramatically. The angel’s appearance to the latter group may signify the beginning of the fulfillment of words to Mary: “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). The significance of “shepherds” who sleep with their sheep and the angels who appear to them in the fields and direct their paths suggests another “political” reality, one sponsored by God’s kingdom. With the coming of this Messiah (a term reeking with political fervor?) in the form of a baby’s birth, God’s heavenly assembly rejoices (2:13-14). And, the angel’s final word is one of “peace on earth.” What will this Messiah’s “peace” look like? Luke has the remainder of the Gospel to bear this out.
As mentioned above Rome’s census establishes a timeline for Jesus’ birth. But Luke actually misjudges the date by about a decade. He acknowledges Jesus’ (and John’s) birth at the end of Herod’s reign (see also Luke 1:5); King Herod died in 4 BCE. The census under Quirinius took place about a decade later (circa 6 CE). Luke was less interested in a specific date than he was in acknowledging a time period. Caesar Octavian Augustus reigned from 31 BCE to 14 CE. Luke simply wants to claim that Jesus’ coming occurred in the Roman Empire. But births also signify something else for empires. Imperialistic powers count births because it expresses the strength of their kingdom. Furthermore, it was one way to secure more funds for the kingdom.
What were the particulars of such a census? Rome trusted its citizens and patrons to give an account of their family members and the values of their properties. The Common English Bible translates Luke 2:1 as being “enrolled in the tax lists.” Most followed this order. As 2:5 implies, even (some) pregnant women traveled to their hometowns. Apparently, not all Jews responded with equal enthusiasm. The Jewish historian, Josephus, recorded that some rebelled against the idea of giving a financial accounting of the properties they owned (Antiquities of the Jews 18.1-7). Luke was also aware of the negative reaction to the census and rebellion one named Judas, another Galilean (see also Acts 5:37). So, Luke’s dates were not accurate but that’s less important than his desire to show that Joseph and Mary were, like the majority of the Jewish people, willing to obey Rome. They were not a threat to the empire or its local representatives.
In this section, there is an emphasis on place (Temple) and practice (Torah) that establishes the family of Jesus as faithful pious representatives within Judaism. Why do this? Luke structures his story around the centrality of the Temple. Both “Luke” and “Acts” open their accounts with dramatic scenes at the Jerusalem Temple. The Gospel of Luke also ends its account with Jesus’ followers “continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:53). Later in the story in Acts, Paul, himself, received the Lord’s vision to go to the Gentiles, while praying in the Temple (Acts 22:17-21). Luke emphasizes that the coming of Jesus and the movement that followed was not antagonistic to the Temple. Temple leaders and their ilk would betray him.
Births imply newness. For empires, they also imply other political realities. For contemporary Western democracies Jesus’ birth is highly valued for its economic value. North American businesses make lots of money during the Christmas season. Today, birth numbers are also political news, when the political parties debate gerrymandering and voting identification laws. During this season, what difference does the birth of Jesus mean for the reality of human life? What impact does it have for us beyond the walls of our worship settings?
PRAYER OF THE DAY
By your greatness you became small, by your power you became powerless, by your limitlessness you became limited. Through the birth of your son, we can live in your light that shines on a world transformed by the limitless power of your love. Amen.
What sweeter music, Michael Fink