Text: Luke 2:1-20
His birth was heralded by signs and portents, declaring him a coming king of his homeland and the ruler of the world. Before he was born, both of his parents had dreams that foretold his greatness, and during his mother’s pregnancy, a dream showed her that the child in her womb was the son of a god – Apollo or maybe even Jupiter. Further signs and good fortune would follow him throughout his rise to adulthood and the surprising events that made him the ruler of the known world.
The ancient record of Augustus Caesar’s birth and life has some strange parallels with the birth and early life of Jesus as Luke relates it in his gospel. It’s not hard to find skeptical modern commentators who have seen these similarities as signs that Luke (or his community) has invented these legends to fit a certain type. The theory goes that Luke wanted to make Jesus seem kingly, and so made up stories of the kind of miraculous signs that were said to have accompanied the birth of Augustus or Alexander. And yet, some more recent historians and commentators have pointed out that this theory does not square with all the ancient evidence, because Luke’s story is also strikingly different than that of Augustus.
The story of Augustus is one of a child born into wealth, privilege, and political power. And unlike modern American politicians who like to play up their humble roots, in the ancient world, riches and status were generally seen as a sign of God’s or the gods’ blessing, while poverty was a sign of sin and divine disfavor. When Marcus Antonius wanted to criticize Augustus, he claimed that Augustus’s great grandfather was a rope-maker! In other words, just a common man.
The story of Augustus fits the ancient profile of a blessed person assuming ultimate power. Augustus is from a historic, well-connected, and wealthy family – sort of like an ancient version of the Kennedys. And his rise to power is ensured by his adoption as heir to his relative, Julius Caesar – the most powerful man in the world at the time.
Augustus was part of the 1%. And that was considered a vital proof of his claim to status and rule. That was the ancient paradigm: power and wealth meant divine favor.
But even though Luke and his readers would have been well-acquainted with the legends of Augustus, if Luke was trying to craft a similar story for Jesus, he gets so many of the elements dead wrong.
Jesus’ family is not wealthy. Jesus is part of the 99% of persons in the Roman Empire who live in what we would consider abject poverty. They are not well-connected. Even in Joseph’s hometown, they can’t find a family member to take them in (probably because Joseph’s family did not buy the story of Mary’s conception by the Holy Spirit and so considered Joseph’s marriage shameful). And there is no powerful politician to adopt Jesus and bestow on him the mantle of power.
Jesus has a pauper’s birth, and his mother lays him in a trough for animals to sleep. And in shocking irony, when angels appear in the heavens announcing the birth of Jesus the Messiah, the only people there to witness it are a bunch of smelly shepherds, the poorest of poor laborers – who probably didn’t even own the sheep.
And rather than invent a story that tells of the power of Jesus over Israel’s oppressors, Luke tells us that Augustus Caesar lifts his little finger in Rome and on the other side of the world, Jesus’ father and pregnant mother are forced to travel like refugees to be counted in the empire’s census, all so that Caesar can know how much in taxes he can squeeze from God’s people.
If Luke has invented his story out of whole-cloth, he can only be said to have done it as some kind of ironic twist on the tradition. People have made up a lot of legendary tales about leaders throughout history, but no one ever makes up a story like this.
Luke inverts the typical story in a way that is clearly intentional. He fills his story with problematic details of Jesus’ poverty and powerlessness that could have easily been omitted if his agenda truly was to make Jesus seem more impressive. Far from omitting these details, Luke sets them in striking contrast with the signs of Jesus’ Lordship. Even the detail about Augustus Caesar could have been left out – none of the other gospels mention it.
But Luke wants us to see the contrast between the self-proclaimed lord and savior of the world, Caesar – who carved his path to power through blood and treachery and subjugation of the weak and poor, who offers the peace of Rome at the point of a sword and threat of painful execution on a cross – and Jesus, the one who the angels proclaim as the Savior, Messiah, Lord, a child indistinguishable amongst the mass of powerless peoples crowding into a makeshift inn, refugees in their own homeland, tossed like leaves in the wind by the politics of distant lands.
What Luke is really telling us is that when God says He is with us, he means it. That God does not stand far off from our sufferings and make decrees like just another petty tyrant. When God becomes King he does not come with an army, enriching himself at our expense.
No, He humbles himself to meet us where we are, take our sorrows and weakness upon himself, suffer as one of us, and even suffer in our place, so that he may raise us up to new life in a renewed creation where he will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness.
That is why the church has always seen in this story of an exhausted teenage mother, her bewildered husband, and their infant wrapped in spare cloth and placed in a pauper’s bed, a blessed moment of holiness, calm, and a light shining in the darkness, giving hope to the world that the Lord reigns!