Shepherds Visit

As you read this, I’m going to take a wild guess that you’re feeling somewhat stressed and anxious.1

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

December 25, 2019

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Commentary on Luke 2:8-20

As you read this, I’m going to take a wild guess that you’re feeling somewhat stressed and anxious.1

It’s one of the vexing ironies of the Christmas season that the peace it proclaims can be so elusive, especially for clergy. I’ll make the suggestion that you take a few minutes (6:34 to be precise) and listen to Cantus perform Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” on YouTube.

Preliminary observations: Most Christians have a harmonization of Matthew and Luke in their head; as you well know, they tell very different stories, both of which serve as overtures to their respective — and distinctive — portraits of Jesus. Matthew focuses on Joseph (Mary is barely mentioned) and the “righteous” way he attempts to deal with the dilemma of a pregnant fiancée; and while Matthew’s story proclaims the (miraculous) birth of one who will “save his people from their sins,” he is equally concerned with foreshadowing the ultimate rejection of Jesus the Messiah by the Jews, which he accomplishes by having the Jewish King Herod try to murder him, while the Gentile wise men worship him. So Matthew’s Jesus comes “only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6; Matthew 15:24) and only turns to the Gentiles after the Jews reject him. Luke, on the other hand (as we saw last week), proclaims the universal, inclusive thrust of Jesus’ mission from the very beginning; his focus is on the peasant girl Mary, flouting patriarchy; and the alternative nature of Jesus’ kingship is beautifully expressed through the juxtaposition of his humble, even humiliating birth with the grandeur and earthly power of the Roman Empire.

Which brings us to the central question I’d like to raise: How does a story that unfolds over against empire speak in the context of empire itself? In the last decade or so, New Testament scholarship has seen the emergence of a new “criticism” (alongside historical, literary, sociological, etc.) focused on the way in which biblical texts critique and attempt to resist and subvert the structures, values, and power of the Roman empire, and of empire in general — as well as the ways Christian empire has coopted the biblical tradition in service of its worldly aims. (For a helpful overview, see Warren Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide [Abingdon, 2006]).

From this perspective, it is indeed striking to see how many terms associated with empire are employed by Luke in these few verses: Emperor (Caesar), registration (census), governor, Savior, Lord, host (a military term), even “good news” (euangelion); and, of course, we have the specter of King Herod hanging over the story, as well (Luke 1:5).

So the story of Jesus’ birth begins with Mary and Joseph compelled by the Empire to journey to Bethlehem to be “registered” (remember that in Matthew, Jesus is in Bethlehem because that’s where Joseph and Mary already live!). Other than the unmistakable presence of the Roman military throughout Judea, there could be no more manifest symbol of the Empire’s power over its subjects. First, a census itself was seen by Jews as odious — as King David himself found out (2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21); since the people of Israel belong to God, only God has the right to number them. Second, the main reason for the registration was to serve the oppressive and exploitive taxation system of the Empire. So it’s not surprising that, according to the historian Josephus, the census carried out under the Roman governor Quirinius sparked a violent revolt in Galilee. (The fact that this took place between 6 and 9 CE, of course, complicates Luke’s chronology; see my historical note below.)

Thus the backdrop of the census is actually crucial to Luke’s agenda: It evokes the imperial rule over against which Jesus forms the alternative; and it recalls the futility of a violent response to that rule. When we realize that Luke is writing in the wake of the Great Revolt of 66-70 CE, put down savagely by the Romans; and when we remember Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem: “If you had only recognized the things that make for peace; but they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42), we begin to see the outlines of Luke’s alternative vision.

And it was Caesar, the emperor, who was proclaimed throughout the Empire as Savior and Lord, and had the “hosts” to back up his claim; as one contemporary inscription from Asia Minor puts it, “Providence granted us a Savior [Augustus] who has made war to cease … with the result that the birth of our god signaled the beginning of Good News for the world.”2

How very odd, then, even scandalous — not to mention seditious — that in the face of such power, a baby born in a sheepfold and placed in a feeding trough is proclaimed — to shepherds! — as Savior, Messiah, and Lord, and that this birth is heralded as the real “good news of great joy for all the people.” What do these terms mean when associated with this event?

Though it is clearly signaled here — again, an overture — that the way of God’s salvation is the antithesis of that of the Roman Empire, to get the full picture, we have to wait until Jesus’ programmatic “sermon” back in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [or Jubilee, when debts and slaves are released]” (Luke 4:18-19).

Though it’s understandable that you would want to avoid interjecting “politics” into a family holiday (and avoid the scarring fights that can ensue around the table!), any attempt to reduce Luke’s Christmas story, as beautiful and evocative as it is, to mere sentiment, or to a promise of personal salvation, simply falls miserably short of Luke’s radical vision. As residents of the most powerful empire on earth — that the earth has ever seen — it is our task as Christians to proclaim and work to bring about a moral vision comprised of mercy, compassion, inclusion, and non-violence. It is well worth the time to look at the text of Pope Francis’s address to Congress in September 2015; I think it safe to say that never before have our nation’s leaders been confronted with such a powerful expression of the Christian gospel and its implications for an empire like ours. Indeed, Francis’ vision comes straight out of Luke’s Gospel: “We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place… Politics is … an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.” Amen.

Historical note: Should you wish to wade into the thorny question of the historicity of the birth narrative — the discrepancies between Matthew and Luke; Luke’s dubious chronology; the absence of the stories from the earliest tradition (Paul and Mark); not to mention a virgin birth! — I find it helpful to think of the stories as an expression of or response to the new life experienced by the early Christian communities, not a proof of Jesus’s identity or divinity. The real question is not whether the events are historically true, but why the communities felt compelled to make these claims about Jesus.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 24, 2015.
  2. Cited in John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994), page 1.


Joy to the world! Our Lord Jesus has come! We welcome you, little king, as you reign in this world. Amen.


O come, all ye faithful   ELW 283, GG 133, H82 83, UMH 234, NCH 135
Angels from the realms of glory   ELW 275, GG 143, H82 93, NCH 126, UMH 220
Go tell it on the mountain   ELW 229, GG 136, H82 99, NCH 154, UMH 251, TFF 52


While shepherds watched, Hugo Jungst