Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
This beautifully written account has inspired countless hymns, liturgies, works of art, and nearly every celebration of Jesus’ advent.
However, as important as this story has been to the church’s remembrance of Jesus’ birth, I wonder if most North American Christians today truly connect with the significance Luke intended it to express.
This story is much more than an eloquently told, romantic tale about Jesus’ birth that resources our Christmas programs, nativity scenes, and holiday cards. Luke scribed this story, and Luke’s first readers would have heard it as a bold, outlandish, even dangerous tale, about one whose birth shakes the very foundations of the world and whose life challenges all claims to power and authority.
Thus far in his gospel, Luke has been focusing on Israel and Jerusalem as the settings of the stories he tells. Now the purview of the narrative widens, for the one hailed by countless multitudes as Lord speaks his will to “all the world” (2:1). Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor, orders a census to be taken and his underlings, such as Quirinius, Governor of Syria, make it happen. Caesar wants to take stock of his subjects and possessions, the objects of his rule and sources of revenue.
Roman domination over the Mediterranean world and beyond was fueled by military supremacy and economic exploitation. Nearly all of the resources in this agriculturally based economy were produced by the poor, peasants, and slaves, but most of those resources were claimed by the ruling class through land ownership, slavery, and taxation. As a result, most of the non-elite population lived near or below the subsistence level. But Roman might compelled compliance, and so “all went to their own towns to be registered” (verse 3) in obedience to this “penetrating symbol of Roman overlordship.”1 The father of Jesus is no exception: “Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem” (verse 4). Caesar’s command rules the cosmos, or so it seems.
In her song of praise, Mary announced that the coming of her child would result in the bringing down of the powerful from their thrones and the lifting up of the lowly (1:52). But even this prophecy leaves the reader unprepared for Luke’s description of the humble state of Jesus’ birth and his first resting place.
In simple, unadorned prose, we are told that Jesus is born, wrapped in bands of cloth, and laid in a feedbox “because there was no place for them in the inn (2:7).” The kataluma, the hostel-like shelter or room set aside for travelers adjoining a house is full. None move aside so that the very pregnant and eventually laboring Mary can give birth in the security of even these very sparse quarters. So the young couple nestles in among the livestock, delivers their child, and employs a manger for a crib.
It may sound romantically rustic to us, but Luke’s readers are confronted with an image of Israel’s messiah that could not be more incongruous with the pomp and might of Emperor Augustus on his throne, commanding the world at will. The repeated references to the bands of cloth and manger as the “sign” which identifies Jesus (2:12, 16-17) keep these lowly elements in view even as he is exalted by the heavenly host and found by the shepherds.
As the scene shifts from stable to darkened field, we once again encounter a setting far removed from Caesar’s seat in Rome: shepherds tending their flocks by night. This is another element of the story that modern readers have long romanticized. But the lowliness of the shepherds and the locale of their labor would have held social and political overtones for Luke’s readers. Shepherds, as well as all agricultural workers, were among the large peasant class whose economic servitude fueled the economy of empire and hegemony of Roman rule.
To claim that the birth of this peasant child poses any sort of meaningful challenge to Caesar would by nearly all sane accounts of the time be simply laughable. Yet this is just the announcement that explodes into the night as the angelic host proclaims Jesus as “Savior, Messiah Lord,” whose birth is good news for all of humanity (2:11). That Luke intended his readers to hear the angelic announcement as an implied, but quite apparent, repudiation of Caesar’s reign is indicated by the fact that many of the very same things the Roman elite celebrated about Caesar and his birth are now attributed to this infant lying in a feedbox. In their decision to honor Augustus by beginning the new year on his birthday, the Roman provincial assembly announced,
Whereas the providence which divinely ordered our lives created with zeal and munificence the most perfect good for our lives by producing Augustus . . . for the benefaction of mankind, sending us a savior who put an end to war . . . and whereas the birthday of the god marked for the world the beginning of good tidings through his coming.2
In not so subtle contrast to the prevailing Roman propaganda of the day, Luke makes the bold counter-claim that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord and Savior of all. In short, Luke’s challenge dramatically relayed is this: the Israelite infant lying in a feed box among sheep, goats, cattle and fowl, drastically marginalizes the significance of Caesar and Rome itself, as he manifests the presence and power of God.
For his birth day, not Caesar’s, is truly good news for all of humankind. His reign, not Caesar’s will lead the heavens to erupt in praise of God (not the gods) and the celebration of enduring peace (verses 13-14). Thus, already near the start of his narrative, Luke puts Theophilus and the rest of his audience on notice that what God does in Jesus significantly undermines all other claims to mastery over humankind. This, Luke shows, is how God’s extraordinary plan for the redemption of Israel, and even all of humanity, unfolds. In this peasant infant, God’s presence and power come into the world and turn it upside down.
1 Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) 122. See also Horsely, The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narrative in Social Context (New York: Crossraod, 1999) 33-38.
2 Translation from S. R. F. Price, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 54.