24 December 2016
Christmas I (RCL)
Luke sets for himself a daunting task: translate the history of Israel into an idiom a Gentile audience can understand, and then show that Jesus fulfills the themes of that history, while at the same time living and dying as a virtuous Gentile. And keep the treason in this endeavor hidden from sight.
The songs of Zechariah and Mary in the first chapter resource the history of Israel. Every good scribe would recognize the sources of those songs, and catch their retelling of that history. And they’re pretty good poetry at the same time. Luke also carefully locates the events he narrates against a Gentile background, giving us names of the Emperor and governors, grafting the history of Israel into a secular history.
In this particular passage, we are told that Augustus is taking a census. We can’t confirm such a census from other sources, but that is not Luke’s point. The census is a point of contact between the history of Israel and Luke’s history. In 2 Samuel 24, David takes a census of the people and earns YHWH’s wrath. The book of the history of David ends with this episode. Luke begins his story of the heir of David’s throne with the story of Caesar’s census. Here is the first irony; Jesus’ story picks up where David’s leaves off.
But Luke takes the irony deeper. Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, and the prophecies predicted that the Messiah would be born at Bethlehem. It is Caesar’s census that moves them from Nazareth to the place of fulfillment. Caesar becomes the unwitting instrument of the fulfillment of prophecy, just as Cyrus had become the Messiah in Isaiah’s telling. But unlike Cyrus, Caesar was not the Messiah; the child born to displaced persons is.
And to add one more layer to the irony, Luke tells of an angel (not a feminine figure with wings, but a soldier in full armor) shows up to a bunch of shepherds (remember that herders of animals were considered unclean by the Egyptians) with the announcement of the fulfillment of the prophecy. And the angel calls the child “savior” (soter), a title given to Caesar by the cities of Asia Minor after he had ended the series of civil wars. And then a whole crowd of the heavenly army shows up (the phrase in Greek is plethos stratias ouraniou) — strateia means an expeditionary force). No wonder the shepherds were terrified!
And this crowd of soldiers sing a hymn to this new Messiah, only they plagiarize the hymn directly from and inscription set up to Caesar by the cities of Asia Minor, when they declared his birthday the beginning of the new year. Caesar was the bringer of peace to all those to whom he was well disposed.
In his arrogance to count the people (compare his arrogance to David’s), Caesar becomes the unwitting instrument of the establishment of a new kingdom (empire) that will replace his own in Luke’s telling of it. This is politically dangerous stuff, and Luke has to write it in such a way that his hearers “in the know” will get it, but will seem pretty innocuous to anyone else. The problem, of course, is that now that we have taken the place of Caesar, we no longer hear the treason in Luke’s story. That, I suppose, is the deepest irony of all.