Commentary on Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20
This scene opens with Roman trumpets blaring an imperial order coming from Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
All the world jumps and runs to be enrolled. This is the impact of Roman domination. One man, one Roman man, can (as long as he is Caesar Augustus) issue an order and throw the world into motion.
Since all the characters in the foreground of the story are Jews, it is important to notice that Jews are a subjugated people in this narrative world, subject to the whims and rages of both the distant Roman rulers and the (all too) close Roman army. That’s how life is in the outlying provinces, where order is maintained at any cost, and tribute is exacted for the good of the Roman home provinces.
If you begin reading Luke’s story in chapter 2 you see clearly the impact of Rome’s domination of the known world. If you begin reading in chapter 2 you see that Rome controls everything.
But there is a long chapter, some eighty verses, in fact, that stirs the story into motion before Caesar Augustus ever gets to order anything, and if you only begin reading in chapter 2, you miss this. In fact, you misunderstand the entire story.
Luke’s story starts, not in Caesar’s palace screaming with military trumpets, but in the Temple, in the Holy of Holies, that quiet, dark, Jewish place at the symbolic center of the Jerusalem Temple (and thus the center of the entire universe). It starts, not with the Governor of Syria, but with an old priest who is married to an old woman of the priestly tribe of Aaron, an old priest who encounters an angel while carrying out his part in bringing the world into balance by performing Temple service. From the start of Luke’s story, one thing is clear: it may be a Roman world, but it is a Jewish universe, no matter what Caesar Augustus thinks.
There is more here. Gabriel is not done. He appears next to a young Jewish woman who is courageous enough to talk back to an angel, courageous enough also to accept an untimely pregnancy even though it could result in an honor killing. Why does Mary accept this hazardous mission? The storyteller has Mary sing her reasoning: this is a key step in God’s project to turn the world right-side-up, to bring down the powerful from their thrones and to raise up the oppressed, to feed the hungry with the good things of Creation and to send the overstuffed rich empty away, to help the Jewish people and to remember promises made all the way back to Abraham. Caesar may be issuing orders, but God is keeping promises. That is more important.
There is even more going on. When Mary accepts her role, she begins by running to the hill country of Judea, to the shelter of Elizabeth’s house (Zechariah is there too, but he is silent). That keeps the narrative neat, all the characters interlocking nicely, but it does something even more important. The storyteller (through the voice of the angel) tells us that Elizabeth is Mary’s kinswoman.
Though the exact relationship is not specified, this naming of kinship raises the possibility that Mary, like her kinswoman Elizabeth, is a daughter of Aaron, a member of a priestly family. And since priestly families appear to have been endogamous (marrying only within the clan), this raises the possibility that Joseph, too, is an Aaronide, a relative of priests. More importantly, this means that Jesus, identified by Gabriel as the one who will be given the throne of “his father, David,” is also of the family of Aaron. The messiah, in this story, is woven into both the priesthood and the kingship, the two traditional organs of ancient Jewish society that were charged with balancing and protecting the world.
And most important of all, the first chapter of Luke’s story makes it clear that this is a story about the power of family. When Mary faces danger, she goes to family and is sheltered. That’s what family does.
And when Caesar seeks to demonstrate his power and dominate his world, all he actually does is reunite families in their home territory. When Mary and Joseph, along with the rest of the world, are ordered back to their towns, they are linked with family and sheltered. That’s what family always does, at least when it works the way it should.
That’s why it is important to note that, although the NRSV translates the place where there was no room (kataluma) as “inn” in 2:7, we should read the word differently. In Luke 22:11 the NRSV translates the same word as the “guest room” where Jesus will eat the Passover with his disciples. We should read both of these rooms as guest rooms.
Mary and Joseph (and Jesus) are sheltered with the animals, not because all the motels were full and they were alone and friendless, but because the fact that the family guest room was already full does not mean that family members would be turned away. Quite the contrary. In the narrative world opened to us by the storyteller, family will always provide shelter and support. That’s why Mary and Joseph were not concerned twelve years later when they were returning from their annual Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem: they supposed, for an entire day, that Jesus was in the group of travelers. With family. That’s why, at the very end of Luke’s story, the daughters of Jerusalem come out to mourn for their brother, Jesus, as Rome leads him out to his execution. That also is what family does.
Something interesting happens next. Jesus is born, surrounded by the family of David, his father, in Bethlehem. An angel appears to shepherds in the fields, guarding their flocks. The angel says that a baby is born “to you.” The angel could just as easily have said that a baby was born to Mary, or (if that were too anachronistically individualistic), the angel could have said that the baby was born to the family of David.
But the angel says that the baby is born “to you.” Interpreters often leap ahead to the idea that it is the “savior” who is born “to you.” That works fine, but the storyteller emphasizes the birth, not the soteriology at this point. The good news is the news of a birth, and the baby is born to a family.
Even the shepherds are part of the family. Having heard the family news, the shepherds go to welcome the baby and to congratulate the parents. When they arrive, they participate in the family ritual of forecasting the future artistic and intellectual accomplishments of the baby, only they have more to go on than most visitors. They are not limited to noticing that he looks just like Uncle Oscar or has a pianist’s hands. They have the word of an army of angels, singing in the night, so they report that. That is what family does. Mary, we are told, reflects on all of this, treasuring everything that had been said. This is what mothers do.
By the way, don’t stop reading this story when the Revised Common Lectionary stops at verse 20. Read also verse 21, because in that verse Jesus’ family names him and circumcises him. This is what Jewish families do, and this is a very Jewish family.