Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
Luke’s infancy narrative sets the humble birth of Jesus against the backdrop of a mighty empire and powerful rulers.1
While Caesar Augustus orchestrates an empire-wide census, the seemingly insignificant birth of a baby to peasant parents unfolds in the rural Palestinian village of Bethlehem.
The “Roman Peace”
Caesar Augustus — whose name means revered or exalted one — ended a long period of war in the Roman Empire and was hailed as a prince of peace, the savior of the world. With his reign began the Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace.” Under his rule, the economy was booming and Rome was rebuilt more glorious than before — with temples, arenas, public baths, and forums. A system of roads was built across the empire. Images of the Emperor and the Roman gods filled Rome and all major cities of the empire, proclaiming “Caesar is Lord” and extolling his rule of peace and prosperity.
Beneath the emperor’s polished public image, however, was a much darker reality. Augustus brutally murdered any perceived enemies. He achieved peace in the empire by suppressing human rights and liberties. Receiving the benefits of the Roman peace meant submitting to totalitarian rule. And of course, peace achieved by coercion and oppression is no true peace at all.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (2:1).
The purpose of this census was so that taxes could be collected from all the conquered peoples of the empire. And so a very pregnant Mary and her fiancé Joseph made the arduous 90-mile trek from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, the city of David, so that Joseph could be registered in his ancestral home town. Utterly insignificant among the countless subjects of the Roman Empire, Mary and Joseph were poor, weary travelers who could find no suitable place to lodge. Far from home and the family who might assist and comfort her, Mary gave birth to her first-born and laid him in a manger.
On the surface of this story, it appears that Emperor Augustus is in absolute control, ordering the movements of people in far-flung corners of his empire. Yet there are clues that another hand is at work in and through these events. Centuries earlier, Samuel had journeyed to Bethlehem and anointed the shepherd boy David to be king of Israel, even while Saul remained in power. Now in this city of David, a child is born to inherit “the throne of his ancestor David” (Luke 1:32), even while Herod, Quirinius, and Augustus ostensibly remain in power.
Peace on Earth
In the humblest and most unlikely of circumstances, a child is born who will be the true shepherd-king, the true Prince of Peace and Savior, who will usher in God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. The peace he brings will come not from military might, but from justice and mercy. He will rule not with coercive force, but with the power of self-giving love.
It is strangely appropriate that news of this royal birth comes first to some shepherds — among the lowliest of the emperor’s subjects. We tend to romanticize those “shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night,” but in the first century, shepherds were not considered desirable company. They were poor, illiterate, and thought to be dishonorable because they could not be home at night to protect their women. They were also considered thieves because they grazed their flocks on other people’s property. They were outcasts of polite society, usually ranked together with sailors, butchers, camel drivers, and other despised occupations.2
Yet it is to these unlikely folk that the angel announces: “Do not be afraid, for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. To you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (2:10-11). The news of Jesus’ birth is for all the people — not just the powerful and elite, but all the people, especially the lowly and outcast. The shepherds go to Bethlehem to find this baby, and become the first to share the good news of the Savior’s birth.
In Luke 1, Mary sang of God bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly (1:52). In the Messiah’s humble birth and the shepherds receiving and sharing the good news, we see the lowly being lifted up. It will be some time before Caesar is brought down from his throne, but that day will come, as it will for all the emperors after him. Meanwhile Mary’s child will “reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (1:33).
Good News of Great Joy
We live in a world still dominated by little caesars, a world still enamored with wealth, power, and military might, a world where the lowly still get trampled far too often. Yet recently we have seen some of those little caesars fall. We have been reminded that, one way or another, the rule of every tyrant eventually comes to an end.
Lest we become smug, we are reminded that our personal empires too will pass away — all the things we hold onto so tightly, all the ways in which we seek power over others, all our relentless planning and maneuvering that never brings true peace or security. We can no longer delude ourselves into thinking that we are lords over our own lives, for God’s anointed one, the Savior and Lord, has arrived among us.
This Savior is born for us, even these many centuries later, and his birth is good news for all people. He comes to bring peace on earth by reconciling us to God and to one another with the power of love that casts out fear. His reign continues to break into our world wherever the lowly are lifted up — wherever the outcast are welcomed, wherever the hungry are fed, wherever the poor are clothed and sheltered, wherever the captives are set free, wherever enemies are reconciled, wherever the good news is proclaimed, sins are forgiven, and lives are transformed.
As we celebrate the Messiah’s birth, we look forward to the day when his reign of justice, mercy, and peace will come in all its fullness.
- Commentary first published on this site Dec. 24, 2011.
- Bruce Malina, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis, Fortress, 2002) 232.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Emmanuel, today we celebrate your coming and rejoice in your promises. We joyfully welcome you to this world and celebrate your presence in our lives. Amen.
Silent night, holy night ELW 281, GG 122, H82 111, NCH 134, UMH 239
Away in a manger ELW 277/278, GG 114/115, H82 101, NCH 124, UMH 217
Joy to the world ELW 267, GG 134, 266, H82 100, NCH 132, UMH 246/818b
I am so glad each Christmas Eve, Carolyn Jennings