When reading the Bible, it’s good to observe the details. Since not every detail in a story can be included, it’s useful to ask, “Why this one?” Some details are just descriptive, but some point to something significant.
Take, for instance, Luke’s statement that Mary wrapped Jesus in bands of cloth, or swaddling cloths. He could have easily just written that Mary laid Jesus in the manger; we would have assumed she wrapped him in something.
But he specifically mentions the swaddling cloths. So what’s up? To find out, let’s back up and do a little background work.
If Caesar Augustus is lurking in the background of Matthew’s birth narrative, obscured behind his puppet king Herod, he takes center stage in Luke’s birth narrative. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
The purpose of this registration was taxation, and here are a couple of important points that need to be made about taxation in 1st century Israel.
First, taxation imposed on the common person was a terrible burden. Israel was a conquered people, and Rome exacted punitive tribute from its conquered territories.
In addition, the Jews were still obligated to give their tithes to their own country. Tithes in biblical days weren’t simply to provide funds for their religious institutions; they were in fact the Israelite taxes.
Two tithes, or 20%, were required each year, and every third year an additional tithe was required to provide for the poor. (This is the “full tithe” referred to in Malachi 3:10.)
That’s a lot of money being paid out by the average person, but that’s not all. Herod needed to stay in good graces with Rome, so he named cities after Caesar and built imperial temples and fortresses in each of them. He also expanded the Temple in Jerusalem, using features of Greco-Roman architecture. These building programs required funds, which Herod acquired through additional taxes on the people of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea.
As a result of all of this taxation, poverty was widespread. Families went into debt in order to pay all the taxes and feed themselves. The interest rates charged would make loan shark blush, and many people literally lost the farm. They lost the land that was part of the original apportionment when the Israelites settled the Promised Land.
This brings up the second aspect of 1st century taxation: the poor—which increasingly was just about everybody—received little or no benefit from the taxes. Caesar used the money to enrich himself and the elite class of Romans. The average Roman citizen didn’t even benefit beyond receiving some free grain each month.
Likewise, tithes were used to support the Temple cult, which had become very powerful in Judea; and, as I’ve mentioned, Herod used the extra taxes he collected to ingratiate himself to Rome.
Herod was king, but he was king for the rich and elite; Caesar was emperor, but he was emperor for the rich and elite.
What was needed was someone who would be king for the poor.
And that is what Luke’s birth narrative proclaims Jesus to be. He is born in the city of King David. And he is wrapped in swaddling clothes, just as is claimed for King David’s firstborn son, King Solomon, in The Wisdom of Solomon, which was written just a few decades before Jesus’s birth.
In 7:1-6, in which Solomon is emphasizing his humble roots, he says, “I also am mortal, like everyone else….And when I was born, I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth; my first sound was a cry, as is true of all. I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. For no king has had a different beginning of existence; there is for all one entrance into life, and one way out.”
Luke uses this as a slap in the face of Augustus, who had declared that Julius was divine, allowing him to claim to be “the son of God.” Further, it was claimed that his birth was the beginning of “good news,” that a savior had been born who would bring “peace” to the world.
So when the angel says to the shepherds, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger," this is a direct challenge to Augustus.
A new king has been born, Luke proclaims.
Most significant is that the angel announces the birth of this king to shepherds, common peasants barely surviving under Augustus and Herod. And he proclaims that this birth is the real good news.
Well, maybe not good news to the rich, the powerful, the elite, the puppet rulers and emperors claiming to be divine.
But good news to the poor, the widows, the orphans.
So at last a king has come, Luke proclaims, born to common peasants, in lowly circumstances; a king who is a friend, not to the rich and powerful, but to the poor and lowly.
And the government that is upon his shoulders will be full of justice and peace (Isa. 9:6-7).
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