4 BCE. The likely year of Jesus’ birth. Caesar Augustus was emperor, the man previously known as Octavius, and great-nephew of Julius Caesar. Wikipedia says in its introduction to the entry about Caesar Augustus that he was one of the most effective leaders in human history. This interpretation depends upon where you stood in the Roman hierarchy of his time. If you were part of the wealthy ruling class, you might agree, if you were not, you might see things differently.
Caesar Augustus became Emperor after many years of Civil War. He didn’t come into Rome and seize the title. Instead, he gradually chipped away at the Republican traditions of Rome until Rome was a Republic in name only and Caesar Augustus was the only one in charge of a vast and sprawling empire.
This was said about Caesar Augustus:
Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a Savior, both for us and our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Caesar Augustus was the beginning of good news for the world that came by reason of him.
Caesar Augustus was called “Son of god” and worshipped as such.
He ruled this empire through military might, crushing anyone who might try to thwart his goals of peace (absence of war) and wealth. In the outer reaches of his empire, client or puppet kings were the norm. As long as these local kings kept the peace and sent tribute or taxes to Rome, Caesar August was happy, and his legions would stay away. If not, well, nobody wanted to be on the defense against a Roman legion.
In 4 BCE, Palestine, a back water province that Caesar Augustus cared about only because it was between two more important provinces—Syria and Egypt, King Herod the Great was the puppet king of the Emperor. Some areas of the province were in the charge of a Roman governor (such as Pontius Pilate at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion). Jerusalem itself was under the charge of the Roman governor with the day-to-day management under the direction of the Sanhedrin and the Chief Priest. The Chief Priest was hand-picked by the emperor.
Herod was a paranoid sociopathic ruler who killed many of his male relatives. Indeed, Caesar Augustus said of him that he would “rather be a pig than Herod’s son.” Herod wanted Jerusalem to become the Athens of the East. He embarked on massive building projects which demanded huge reserves of slave labor and massive amounts of revenue acquired through punitive taxation. He was liked by almost no one, but he kept the peace and sent tribute to Rome, so the emperor did not care what he did.
In Palestine the richest 70 families owned almost all the land. The elders came from these families. The elders used tax collectors to tax the rest of the population. The elders, priests, and tax collectors were allowed to keep any revenues they collected that were not sent to Rome. This incentivized the ruling class to maintain the status quo, which was Roman rule. It was also an efficient way of redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich.
Most citizens of Palestine were Jewish and were allowed to practice their religion without interference, as long as they were loyal to Rome and paid their taxes. The vast majority were tenant farmers, farming the land of the wealthy landowners. Some, such as Jesus’ father, were artisans. We call Joseph a carpenter, but it would be more accurate to say construction worker or builder. Others were day laborers. And at the bottom were beggars, prostitutes, and other outcasts. Many ended up in debt slavery because they had to borrow money to pay the enormous taxes levied on them. Most lived hand to mouth, never knowing from one day to the next if they would have enough to feed themselves and their families. Tax collectors had the authority to torture and imprison those who were unable to pay their taxes.
This is the world in which Mary and Joseph lived. A world in which, whether it is factually accurate or not, an Emperor had the ability to make a young couple travel at great hardship in order to be counted for the purposes of taxation. Mary and Joseph lived in a world in which they were but pawns on the chess board that belonged completely and totally to the Emperor of Rome, or was it?
And this is the world into which God entered as a helpless infant born amongst the farm animals to parents who had little power, wealth, or status. Caesar Augustus might control a lot, but Caesar does not control God, nor is Caesar Augustus God, even though he might claim the title. Jesus’ birth is a statement of God’s victory and God’s love of humanity. God cares about the least. God cares about the shepherd watching his flocks in the fields. God cares about the tenant farmer desperately trying to feed his family. God cares about the unexpectedly pregnant woman who faces a precarious future. God cares about the prostitute selling her body simply to survive. God cares about everyone that those with wealth and power do not care about. Caesar Augustus and those around him might declare that the world’s hopes lie with him, but God is telling us otherwise. The hopes of the world lie with God.
And this Christmas, as we struggle in a world just as unequal and brutal as the world of Caesar Augustus, we all need to be reminded that our hope lies not in the rulers of this world but in the creator of all who comes to us in the birth of Jesus. Pax Romana might bring wealth to a few and an absence of war, but the peace of God through the incarnation brings enough for all and a peace that goes deeper than any absence of war could ever go. And this is the true good news. The rulers of this world might delude themselves into thinking that they are all powerful and equal to or above God, but the incarnation of God in Jesus tells us that this is not so.
And the angel said to them, “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.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”