Commentary on Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20
For centuries the narrative of the Nativity of Jesus has been spiritualized and read literarily.
In fact, the Nativity of Jesus has political and economic dimensions, which have been ignored. From the evangelist Luke’s perspective, Jesus’ birth is regarded more highly than the birth of Emperor Augustus. Jesus’ birth challenges the authority of Augustus and his imperial power. I will pay attention to four essential terms in the Nativity of Jesus that carry political and economic meaning: The census, good news, salvation, and peace.
- In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered (Luke 2:1 NRSV).
Emperor Augustus ordered that all the world should be registered. This census was associated with counting not only people but also their properties for taxation and social control. Emperor Augustus used the census as an instrument of his imperial rule and domination. Census was used to benefit the Emperor and the elites at the account of the poor. Accordingly, census became a sign of oppression and exploitation. Jesus was born in a moment when the Jews were oppressed and marginalized. Joseph and Mary could not avoid the order. They left Nazareth in Galilee to go to Bethlehem in Judea to register their names and properties. Jesus was born in a manger because his birth signifies solidarity with the poor against Rome imperialism.
- Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people (Luke 2:10 NRSV).
The message of the angels to the shepherds put Jesus’ authority over Augustus. The evangelist Luke compares the Nativity of Jesus with Augustus’. The angels declare that Jesus’ birth brings good news to people. “Good news: This term often denoted the empire’s benefits such as an emperor’s birth, military conquest, or accession to power.”1 Augustus’ birth brings good news to people and benefits all humanity by ending war.2 His birth is considered the beginning of everything. Augustus was considered a divine being and priest with high office.3 His birth should be understood as both a political and religious phenomenon. Luke presents Jesus as a divine being, and his birth is the start of the good news. Consequently, The Nativity of Jesus holds political and religious meaning.
- To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:11 NRSV).
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of King David, to emphasize that he is the new King. His birth threatens Augustus and his imperial policy. No one should be considered a king without the Emperor’s permission. The evangelist Luke introduces Jesus as a Savior. The title “savior” was commonly used for the Roman emperor. Augustus earned this title because he ended the civil war and had set all things in order. Salvation has a political dimension for the Romans and the Jews. The Romans understand salvation to mean security and deliverance from all their enemies. The Jews had a similar understanding of salvation.4 Jesus’ act of salvation is for everybody, unlike Augustus’ salvation that aims to protect the elites.
- “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14 NRSV).
The angels declare that the Nativity of Jesus brings peace on earth. The concept of peace is fundamental for the Roman imperial rule. Emperor Augustus was the one who brought Roman peace (Pax Romana), which means security or stability. The Romans highly valued the Pax Romana because Augustus achieved it after a long and turbulent period. However, the Pax Romana is imperial peace. It favors the elites and oppresses the disadvantaged and marginalized people.
The evangelist, Luke, presents Jesus as the new King who will bring peace on earth and to all people. Jesus’ peace is inclusive, not exclusive. Luke talks about the heavenly peace that will resist the imperial and unjust peace. Emperor Augustus enforces the Pax Romana through military invasion and violence. Unlike Augustus, Jesus’ peace does not come through violence and oppression but through non-violent resistance. The Nativity of Jesus Christ challenges Roman imperialism. His birth teaches us that God does not distance Godself from the suffering of the marginalized. Luke writes his gospel to encourage Christians to engage in nonviolent resistance against the Roman Empire.
Preachers can relate the Nativity of Jesus and his message to our context. The economy of the world is in support of a small group, the elites. Underprivileged communities experience violence on a daily basis. Violence can take many forms such as lack of access to good quality of health care, education, and food. The Nativity of Jesus invites us to engage in nonviolent resistance against the imperial power of our day that dehumanizes the marginalized. Promises of salvation and bringing the good news to the marginalized in our community begins when we advocate for them. Declaring the good news starts with challenging the systematic sin that prevents the disadvantaged from improving their lot.
- Warren Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide, Abingdon Essential Guides (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 90.
- Warren Carter, 90.
- Pyung Soo Seo, Luke’s Jesus in the Roman Empire and the Emperor in the Gospel of Luke (n.p.: Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015),10.
- Warren Carter, 90.