We continue our journey into the Christmas stories. In our last post we saw that Matthew is telling a story that invites us to see Jesus as a new Moses, leading a new exodus. Now we turn to Luke’s story, which you can read in chapters 1-2 here.
When reading Luke’s gospel, within the context of the first century world in which it occurred, one message becomes obvious: the birth of Jesus in Luke is a political event. I can appreciate how it feels to read those words. Many of us try to avoid talking about politics, especially at Christmas, especially in the current political climate in the US. However, I think to understand Luke, and much of the Bible, we must be willing to wade into the waters of politics. After all, politics is about how we order the world, about the decisions we make regarding our common life. It’s about power, economics, and how they are shared or hoarded.
Notice some of the language used to describe Jesus and the event of his birth:
Jesus is “Son of the Most High.” This is not a claim about Jesus’s paternity, but a political claim. The Jewish king, beginning with the promise God made to David in 2 Samuel 7, known as the Davidic Covenant, is seen to be God’s son. God, in the story, says to David, “I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to me.” This theological claim continues through the Davidic succession, with many coronation Psalms (ex. Psalm 2) casting the Davidic king as the son of the Most High God.
Jesus is also called the Son of God. Once again, this isn’t a claim about Jesus’s 23andMe results. In the first century world of Jesus there was already a Son of God who ruled the world: Caesar Augustus. When his father, Julius, was declared divine by the Roman Senate, Augustus became a Son of God. The claim that Jesus was Son of God was a direct confrontation with Imperial theology that declared Augustus to be the one who was to be worshipped.1
Much of the birth announcement to Mary develops the theme of Jesus as the rightful claimant to the Jewish throne:
“The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” (Luke 1:32-33, CEB)
Finally, the language present in the announcement to the shepherds in Luke 2 is all language that has been coopted by the writer from the empire:
Good news. We also translate this as gospel, and it was a term used for an announcement of victory or the emperor’s birth. An inscription from Turkey in 9 BCE, announcing that the calendar would now be rearranged to begin with the birthday of Augustus (September 23) gives us a glimpse into how this idea of gospel functioned:
“Since the providence that has divinely ordered our existence has applied her energy and zeal and had brought to life the most perfect good in Augustus, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as a savior—he who put an end to war and will order peace, Caesar, who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who prophesied good news...the birthday of the god first brought to the world the good news residing in him.”
Gospel is a term used by the empire to announce and celebrate the accomplishments of the emperor. Yet, the early followers of Jesus chose, intentionally, to co-opt that language and put it around Jesus. It’s a political claim. Who should decide how the world is ordered? The empire said Caesar; Jesus followers had a different idea.
Savior. This, as you saw above, is another term used to describe Caesar. He was the “savior” who brought peace on earth. Applying this to Jesus is another direct confrontation with the empire.
Christ the Lord. Finally, Christ the Lord makes a dual claim. Jesus is the awaited Messiah2 and also the rightful leader of the world.
Do you see how deeply political this nativity story in Luke is? It confronts the brutality of the empire, the Romans who “made a desert and called it peace,”3 with an alternative vision of a peaceable world of justice, compassion, and equity. Where do we find true power and strength? In the emperor, surrounded in his palace by economic and military power, or in the vulnerability of a baby born to a peasant family? Where will we place our allegiance? Which vision for the world will we embrace? These are the questions Luke is asking through his story of Jesus’s birth.
If Matthew says Jesus is Moses 2.0, then Luke is saying Jesus is greater than Caesar, and the kingdom Jesus proclaimed is more just and human than Rome’s empire.
Perhaps our focus in this season should be keeping Christmas political?
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That’s literally what the title “Augustus” means. His name before receiving divine recognition was Gaius Octavius. He’s better known as “Octavian.”
Messiah means “anointed one.”
Here’s the full quote from the Roman historian Tacitus’s Agricola. It’s supposedly spoken by a man named, Calgacus, an enemy of Rome:
“Robbers of the world, now that the earth is insufficient for their all-devastating hands they probe even the sea; if their enemy is rich, they are greedy; if he is poor, they thirst for dominion; neither east nor west has satisfied them; alone of mankind they are equally covetous of poverty and wealth. Robbery, slaughter and plunder they falsely name empire; they make a desert and they call it peace.”