For the reading before the sermon we heard Carl Scovel’s story of “The Stolen Infant” in which Rev. Scovel’s children conspire to force him to raise the temperature of the parsonage. The story ends with these words, “No monarch, indeed no despot, can ever be quite sure of his rule when a child has been born.”
A few weeks a church member stopped me after church. She had been volunteering as a religious education teacher and the curriculum had contained a lesson teaching the children how to advocate for what they considered important to them. The class had democratically decided on advocating for recycling bins in the church, and they had each written a letter or created a poster depicting the grave urgency of having recycling services available at church. And, all of these petitions were addressed to me, the Reverend Emperor. “No monarch, indeed no despot… Let the record show that there are now three large recycling bins in Fellowship Hall. And let the record show that I have a larger heart than Caesar Augustus.
Recently, in a meeting with the worship team, I shared a list of universal and perennial themes that I associated with the December holiday season in general and with Christmas in particular. Some of those themes included winter and darkness and light, as well as waiting and anticipation and advent meditations on hope, love, peace, and joy. Consumerism and stress had a place on the list, alongside the pangs of loneliness and grief and loss that are felt so acutely by so many at this time of the year. Transformation as well, the ability to vanquish our inner Scrooge or our inner Grinch and to become generous of heart and of good cheer. And, of course, birth and wonder and vulnerability and memory found a place on the list of universal themes as well. As the list was being formed, I added the word “Caesar.” This word stood out and caught the attention of a member of the worship team who remarked that it was interesting that I would consider “Caesar” a universal theme of the holiday season. This is something I probably should explain.
Everything that the Bible has to say about the birth and infancy and childhood and even the adolescence of Jesus is contained in just two chapters, the second chapter of the book of Luke and the second chapter of the book of Matthew. The second chapter of Luke’s Gospel begins with the following words, “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.” A census was being taken throughout the Roman world and everyone had to be registered. That’s the context at the beginning of the story, the reason that Joseph and Mary are required to travel to Bethlehem. Skip ahead just a few verses and we learn that Mary and Joseph bring Jesus as a child to Jerusalem to be dedicated in the temple. In Jerusalem the family encounters two religious figures, Simeon and Anna. Simeon speaks of the child’s destiny saying, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel.” Anna, meanwhile, began “to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Let’s make sure we are all on the same page here. Here is everything that Luke’s Gospel has to say about Jesus’ birth and childhood: he’s born on tax day, shepherds come to visit him, he is circumcised, and he is taken to the temple to be dedicated where all anyone wants to talk about is what role he will play in challenging the Roman occupation.
Let’s jump over to Matthew’s Gospel and see what it has to say about Jesus’ childhood. Matthew begins like this, “Jesus was born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod.” Does anyone see a pattern emerging here? We’re then told that astrologers from the East arrive in Jerusalem looking for the child born under an auspicious sign. Herod feels threatened and calls together a council of religious leaders to help him find the child. Herod is determined to eliminate his competition, even if it is an infant. Joseph and Mary get wind of this and flee to Egypt where they seek asylum. They stay in Egypt until Herod dies, but the situation in Jerusalem is still dicey so the family goes to live in Nazareth. Let’s recap. Here is everything the Gospel of Matthew has to say about Jesus’ childhood: Jesus was a political refugee.
Moving beyond just these two chapters of Luke and Matthew, we find that living in an occupied land ruled by a powerful empire is a constant in the story, providing a context for Jesus’ teachings and parables not to mention his ministry and miracles. All that business about the last becoming first and the first becoming last means something particular when Rome has selected your rulers. Then there are the instructions in the sermon on the mount. When Jesus speaks about providing for widows and orphans, we might remember that the Roman army is the reason for many of those widows and orphans. When Jesus speaks about visiting the prisoner, perhaps he has in mind the ones imprisoned by the Roman authorities for resisting the crush of empire. The reviled tax collector that Jesus dines with is reviled because he has cooperated with empire and agrees to serve as an agent of the oppressor. And, then, of course, there is Jesus’ death at the hands of Pontius Pilate, executed for the crime of agitation and challenging the pax Romana.
New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan points out that “Roman emperors were deemed divine, and, first and foremost, Caesar Augustus was called Son of God, God, and God of God. He was Lord, Redeemer, and Savior of the World. People knew that both verbally from Latin authors like Virgil, Horace, and Ovid and visually from coins, cups, statues, altars, temples, and forums; from ports, roads, bridges, and aqueducts; from landscapes transformed and cities established [all of which bore inscriptions proclaiming the divinity of Caesar]. It was all around them everywhere, just as advertising is all around us today…. Christians must have understood, then, that to proclaim Jesus as Son of God was deliberately denying Caesar his highest title and that to announce Jesus as Lord and Savior was calculated treason. We may have to translate those titles and their effects differently for now, but the ancient challenge is still the same. What divinity and what divine incarnation runs this world? Is that ruling divinity one of force and violence or of justice and love?”
For all the gospels contain about Emperor Caesar Augustus, King Herod, and Pontius Pilate, for all the references they make to the Roman army and the Roman occupation, the gospels are mostly silent about Joseph and Mary. We have just a few verses about Jesus’ childhood and those verses, as we’ve seen, are largely concerned with the larger workings of empire and less concerned with the family life of Jesus’ childhood. That little should be said about either Mary or Joseph is not surprising. Mary was but a thirteen or fourteen year old girl; Joseph was probably slightly older. After Jesus turns twelve the story is completely silent about Joseph. Mary reappears in the story here and there but doesn’t receive much more than a passing mention. Taken at face value, there just is not that much to work with.
However, if we apply a little imagination, playful creativity, and a liberal dose of wonder, we may think of Jesus’ early life being shaped by an education from his parents. When did he first learn about why his family had to seek asylum in Egypt? How did he learn to care for the sick and the poor and treat them with dignity? After all, they are the people that the empire regards as rubbish because they produce nothing for it. Where did he learn compassion and how did he learn to extend his compassion to people like the tax collector and the roman soldier who serve the empire for their own survival but have lost a part of themselves in the process? Who taught Jesus about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and rendering unto God what is God’s? And who taught him that Caesar was not God? How did he learn to turn the other cheek? How did he develop the courage necessary to stand against the Roman Empire?
In my imagination of imaginations, he learned some of these lessons from Joseph and Mary, from the stories they told while crossing the desert, from the stories they told of the home they left and why they could not go back, from the religious lessons they taught, and when they told their family’s own unique and amazing version of “on the night you were born.”
Crossan writes, “The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace. Jesus claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice, or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace.” In my imagination of imaginations, Jesus’ home helped him to develop a worldview that opposed the dominant worldview of the world’s largest empire.
It is a wonder that this should happen. It is a wonder that Moses would discover the courage to stand against Pharaoh, that Gandhi would stand against the British Empire, that Martin Luther King, Jr. would stand against the forces of white supremacy, and that Nelson Mandela would stand against the brutality of the Apartheid regime. It is a wonder that they would develop a worldview based not on violent domination but based on justice and the sisterhood and brotherhood of all.
John Dominic Crossan concludes one of his books on the ancient world with the following challenge. “Rome,” he writes, “was not the evil empire of its ancient time. Rome was not the axis of evil in its Mediterranean place. Rome was not the worst thing that had ever happened to its preindustrial world. Rome was simply the normalcy of civilization within first-century options and the inevitability of globalization within first-century limits. Rome was maybe even the cutting-edge of civilization, although hear the background snickers from the Han Chinese at the other end of the Silk Road. But this is the crucial point… Who they were there and then, we are here and now. We are, at the start of the twenty-first century, what the Roman Empire was at the start of the first century.”
My thoughts on empire are powerfully shaped by the most recent book by Chris Hedges, entitled Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. In this book, Hedges chronicles some of the people and places that have borne the brunt of the normalcy of American civilization. Hedges begins his journey on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota revisiting the systematic theft of land and theft of culture and the human cost of empire’s expansion. Next, Hedges takes us to the ghettoes of Camden, New Jersey, where we see the disintegration of a community that is held to be of little worth or use. From there, Hedges takes us to the coal mines of West Virginia and the produce fields of Florida and shows us the faces of human suffering that are a part of the status quo normalcy of our civilization.
As with Rome, so with us. The empire in which we live has a rapacious hunger for more that is at odds with the common good. It allows for monuments of wealth to be built at the expense of the poor. It raises up expensive armies to protect its own advantage. It measures a person’s worth by how much wealth they are able to produce for the empire; it knows no way to measure dignity. It sees the young and the old, the poor and the sick, as worthless. It sees its own power as divinely justified and favored.
Let the record show that the Christmas story, and for that matter the Jesus story, the Gandhi story, and the King story, are all stories of resistance to empire, of refusing to go along with the rules of empire, of declaring empire to be corrupt and immoral. To side with the newborn child instead of with empire, well that just changes everything. It changes how we should celebrate and challenges how we should live.