When we turn to Luke’s story of Jesus, we immediately notice it is completely different from that of Matthew. This is the story with which we are most familiar – add Matthew’s magi and you have the Nativity (excluding the variety of presumed animals that are never mentioned except in carols and other stories). Luke’s account manages to intertwine the births of Jesus and John the Baptist and link the families together in a manner that is unique to Luke. There are prophecies of the 2 births and then the 2 expectant mothers come together in an encounter that sets the order of authority between the 2 offspring – Jesus is superior to John. In this early part of the story we have the marvellous words of ‘Mary’s Song’ (in Latin, the Magnificat) in which the world is turned upside down. In Mary’s Song it is the poor, lowly maiden who is chosen by God over all the wealthy, powerful possibilities. It speaks of the reversal of the world’s values under God’s Reign. Following this is the birth of John and the Song of Praise of his father, Zechariah. So far in this story Mary is the one to whom God’s will is revealed through an Angelic visitation. Joseph is not mentioned until the 2nd chapter and only in 2 verses. He says nothing and is only involved to the extent that he takes Mary to Bethlehem to register for the census. Joseph is passive in everything else. In chapter 2 we have Luke’s birth narrative of Jesus. This story is given context immediately – the time when Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire and decreed a census be taken. Then we have the story of Joseph taking Mary to Bethlehem from Nazareth, although we aren’t really sure whether she rode a donkey as it isn’t mentioned. There is no room in the inn and Mary lays her new-born in a manger, wrapped in swaddling cloths. The first people who hear this news are shepherds, the lowly people on the fringes of society. There are angel messengers who speak with the shepherds and then an angelic chorus in the skies proclaiming glory to God and peace on earth to those on whom his favour rests. It is big and extravagant – especially compared to Matthew’s simple announcement, with its deeper themes that need to be drawn out. It is obvious why the common story told is that of Luke not Matthew. The drama and extravaganza, shepherds and angels are more interesting and necessary than a simple statement that Jesus was born. The shepherds visited the new born baby and gave praise to God. They passed this Good News around and people were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
Going Deeper – Challenges from Luke…
The historical references in Luke 2:1-7 have caused considerable difficulty for those who have tried to verify the chronology from other historical accounts and sources. For example, Herod died in 4 AD, whilst Quirinius became Governor of Syria in 6 AD. There is no record of a census ‘of the whole world’ (the Roman Empire) under Augustus and no record of an early census of Judea (one did occur under Quirinius after 6 AD but that is too late). The Roman system of registration did not require a person to return to their birth place or family’s town of origin. Joseph would not have been required to take Mary there, under the Roman system. Many commentators refer to several purposes behind Luke’s telling of his story with these uncertain elements of census and historical figures. In essence Luke’s narrative brings together different elements that point to the theological truth in his story of Jesus. As R. Alan Culpepper says in the New Interpreter’s Bible: “The context of Jesus’ birth, therefore, has thematic and theological significance. Jesus, the son of David, the bringer of peace, was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. The Saviour of all people was born under the reign of Caesar Augustus, whose peace paled before that announced by the angels. The Messiah born under Roman oppression, which was so evident in the forced registration, would overthrow the powerful and raise up the oppressed… the context of Jesus’ birth… serves as commentary on his future role.” [p63]. In Luke’s account the destination for all is Bethlehem – Mary and Joseph, the angels and the shepherds. It is in Bethlehem, lowly and far away that the story is set. It ties Old Testament expectation to the reality of the experience of the Risen Christ of the New Testament and beyond. It is a place of wonder and mystery in the midst of a troubled, struggling world. It turns the world of power, might, fame and fortune upside down, proclaiming good news to those who will humble themselves long enough to listen and be challenged. The humble and poor of the earth don’t have to do too much – they are already in the place where this good news will reach their ears and bring hope. The powerful figures of earth will need to travel much farther into humility and servant-hood, to lose their lives and become the last and least in order to find that for which they seek and yearn. Despised shepherds, prostitutes, outcasts, sinners, poor, sick and the lowly all come to the place of hearing and understanding more quickly than the sophisticated, wealthy, powerful and respectable. Bethlehem might be the symbolic place in our world, our lives as well. Perhaps it is the place to which we have to travel to encounter the good news we yearn for in our deepest being. Bethlehem is far from ordinary life, simple and basic. It is not the centre of ordinary life – the cities with their business, politics, noise and expectations. Bethlehem lies beneath the decorations and tinsel, behind the parties and good cheer that dissolves and fades into another year. Bethlehem is the place of contrast, the beginning of the story that will take place somewhere else where life is lived in all of its fullness, its struggle and joy, wonder and mystery. Bethlehem is the place to which we come each year to hear the beginning of the story of Jesus. It is the polar opposite of the places of power and wealth in our world and challenges us over our allegiance. Will we follow Herod and Caesar? Will we seek to align ourselves with the powers of the world that delight in power, might, glitter, glory and wealth? OR, will we follow the One born in humble simplicity, in lowliness and revealed only to despised shepherds or pagan Gentiles? Will we follow the way of God or the way of Caesar? Will we hope in the Kingdom of God or the Empire of Caesar and the powers of the world? The bottom line of these stories is that God loves us and welcomes all people into grace, peace, hope and life! A Radical and Subversive Story… As I read this narrative I recall that the good news in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’ birth was not Jesus but Caesar Augustus. The ‘gospel’ (good news) that Caesar Augustus declared, the good news according to Caesar, was: “Divine Augustus Caesar, son of god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and saviour of the whole world, has brought you peace.” This claim was profound and carried significant weight, power and authority. Anyone who tried to lay claim to this role was a pretender to Caesar’s throne, treasonous and would be permanently silenced. Luke seems to confront the greatest power on earth, the one who proclaims peace and salvation and claims divinity, with the birth of a simple baby born of lowly parents who have little identity. Joseph has nothing said of him except that he is of David’s line. The baby has no place to be born and is laid in a manger. His mother declares her own lowliness and God’s favour on the despised and poor. The shepherds do not embrace any social status either but they become witnesses to this birth. It is deliberately the polar opposite of the worldly power and might of Caesar! The contrast between Caesar and Jesus could not be more profound. Into this birth in poverty Luke inserts heavenly choirs and angelic messengers who declare God’s purposes, will and blessing – even using Augustus’ blessing of peace on earth. Luke is deliberately confronting the power of Empire with his story of Jesus. It is the power of Rome against the Kingdom of God and the difference could not be more starkly real. This is offensive and blasphemous in the most profound way to the Empire. It is nothing less than slap in the face and mocking of the most powerful forces in the 1st century world. It is a bold declaration that Caesar is not God or Lord, the God revealed in Jesus is – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God who brought the people out of Egypt and created a holy nation; the God who provided food and water in the wilderness and so on. This God, proclaimed by Moses and the prophets is revealed most deeply and profoundly in this simple, poor child, Jesus. In effect: ‘Caesar, you are nothing. With all your power and armies and impressive words, you are still nothing! Jesus, this simple rabbi of simple birth incarnates the Kingdom of the True God.’ Luke’s account builds on this distinction between the powers and culture of the world: injustice and economic deprivation, domination and violence, and the exclusion and abuse of people. The Kingdom of God, as Jesus incarnates it (and Paul will also proclaim in his repeated words that in Christ all are equal; there is no male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile…) is one of inclusive, gracious love. It is built upon justice (economic and social), compassion, mercy, peace and love. It is distinctly non-violent and Jesus incarnates this non-violent approach to life. He is not passive or weak but courageously takes on the evil powers of the world that abuse and dominate people with violent rhetoric and action. He confronts injustice and poverty whether codified by Rome (political/ military power) or Jerusalem (religious power), all in the power of God.
Caesar’s Power in Our world!
The Christmas stories, for me, take on a very different power and meaning in the light of their context within their respective stories and the world in which they are told. Far from the simple, nice stories we fondly remember and even re-tell, these are challenging stories that confront the very nature of the world in which we live. Our world, no less than that of Matthew and Luke, is filled with ‘powers’ many of which exhibit the same violence and domination symbolised by Augustus. There are world powers that are far more powerful than even the Roman Empire. The USA has the power to destroy the world many times over with its stockpiles of nuclear weaponry. It has dominated the world landscape for the last half of the 20th century. Other contenders have risen and fallen – most notably the USSR. China is on the rise and whilst we experience the US as friend and ally, China may well be different. Not everyone in the world experiences the US as friend and many nations have incurred the wrath of US foreign policy and military invasion – all in the name of ‘peace’. Our world continues to believe in the Myth of Redemptive Violence that has been a dominant myth in most of the world’s societies since around 3000 BC, when evidence of wide-scale warfare is encountered in the historical records. Societies became hierarchical, patriarchal and authoritarian in rigid ways. Theologian, Walter Wink says: “[The Myth of Redemptive Violence] enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world.” [The Powers That Be p42] He goes on to speak about how violence seems natural, it works and seems inevitable. Violence is often the first thing most people turn to in conflict and certainly where we turn when all else fails. In this sense Wink suggests that violence functions religiously and is god-like. “It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience unto-death.” This is certainly what our military systems require and we lavish trillions of dollars into the military systems of the world each year. In every way we hold to the myth of redemptive violence in our national psyche. It isn’t only through the military that we worship at the altar of redemptive violence. Violence is prevalent across the broad spectrum of our society – in homes, schools, workplaces, sporting events, politics, advertising and the corporate world… Competitive violence that seeks to dominate people or organisations is prolific – even in and between churches! It is this system of violence and the abuse of power through dominating others that typified Rome in Jesus’ day. In Jesus’ time there was tremendous suffering of many people. The story continues today in Continental Africa, South America, Asia, the Pacific or even in the wealthy west! It might go something like this: “A family of subsistence farmers have lost their land. Perhaps they fell into deeper and deeper debt and were foreclosed. Or they may not have had secure title to the land; even though their family had been farming it for generations, they lost it to a large plantation with crafty lawyers and hired guns. Perhaps the farmer ends up as a day labourer on his old land; perhaps the family drifts to the big city. Either way, they get poorer and poorer. In the city, unable to find work, they pick over the garbage in the huge dump. Or, back on the plantation, the farmer finds that his wages don’t come close to covering what he owes to the company store. Eventually he is dumped. So whether in the city or on the land, the family is slowly dying of starvation. The children, of course, have no chance of being educated. There is virtually no possibility of their rising out of poverty this profound. So they die. They become lost in the labyrinth of the Domination System [of the world’s powers].” This is the story of many people throughout history – before, during and since Jesus’ time. Many of his neighbours from rural Galilee suffered this fate as their lands were forcibly taken from them through debt and the abuses of power as others sought to accumulate wealth, assets and power. In our world 18 million people die each year from poverty-related deaths (50,000 each day, of which 22,000 are children). These are people caught in the forces that dominate our world, often anonymous forces that we each experience through the cultures that dominate our lives. Our fear: of economic impoverishment and of being left behind; of other cultures and political systems; of people we don’t understand; of threats and violence or power and might… leaves us vulnerable to being caught up in this system of domination and violence. We are bewildered by issues such as those confronting us through the Aboriginal people in Australia. We have no idea how things came to be as they are. We were not part of the decision-making processes and actions 200 years ago – or even in the mid 1900’s when Aboriginal children were taken from their homes. We don’t understand the system that surrounds us and creates such poverty and suffering. We don’t choose these things but they happen and it is often good people, we have elected as leaders who perpetrate or perpetuate these things. At the time they seem okay but the system hides the deeper truths and confounds the issues and we are not willing to look more deeply into what is happening. We also have too much invested in the system, too much to lose in terms of social status, material possessions, invested money and the lives we’ve created. God’s Power of Love – the Deep Truth of Christmas! This is the world that is represented by Caesar Augustus. It is the world that Mary’s Song delights in opposing. It is the world that Jesus stands against as the one who incarnates the Kingdom of God. The simple stories of Jesus’ birth confront the world’s powers with the great Good News that Caesar (whoever he may be in our lives!) is not God and that violence, domination, greed, wealth and power do not have to have power over us, they are not God’s ways. The true Good News that Jesus lived and proclaimed is that God loves us! This is too often a glibly uttered cliché that sounds nice instead of being the profoundly deep central truth of our lives. We are loved by God! Love is at the heart of God’s Kingdom and we are invited, encouraged and exhorted to live in this love and to express this love. In fact the Good News is that God loves us and because of God’s love for us we are empowered to live lives of love. The reality that God loves us is the foundational truth of all else. We have worth and self-esteem through knowing we are uniquely loved by God. We also experience liberating freedom to love and cast aside the fear and competitive elements of the culture around us because we no longer have to feel threatened or insecure. Jesus’ life was lived in the knowledge that he was God’s beloved and that God is love! His story of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s account is a profoundly wonderful story of God who waits with open arms for us; who reaches out to receive us and celebrate over us. Paul encapsulates the truth of this story in Romans 8 when he says that nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ! Jesus’ message is very clear: God’s grace is outrageously generous! God’s forgiveness is boundless and God’s love is without limit! The Kingdom of God stands against the other kingdoms of this world. God’s love is central and radiates out with peace, justice, inclusion, community, forgiveness. This Reign of God is what we most truly and deeply desire, a place, a community where we don’t have to prove ourselves. It is a community where we can work together to overcome the hatred, conflict, competition and greed of our culture and world. It is where the tired, stressed, sad, anxious, poor, sick, disabled, lost, troubled – all of us! – can come together, work together and build the world according to God! This is precisely the way of Jesus. It was his modus operandi and the crowds of ordinary people came to him, rejoicing and celebrating at the hope and promise of God! The Christmas stories introduce the radical story of Jesus, which embraces the radical love of God let loose in the world. The problems and struggles in our world and in our lives that threaten to overwhelm us can be embraced into this love and shared with each other. When we love generously, poverty thus is no longer an impossible problem. Warfare is no longer inevitable. Exclusion, rejection and hatred don’t have to dominate human life because love is possible! Our own times of personal struggle, pain and alienation can be embraced within the community of God’s love and shared in such a way that we are held and offered comfort and support. Even death, the great threat to everything the powers hold dear and the threat they hold over the world, collapses under God’s love. Nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from God’s love! The Christmas stories lead us into the place of God’s profound, transforming love and grace – the hope for our world!