“But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for Me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
Jesus of Nazareth was born a peasant, the son of peasants. Peasantry is a condition of enforced poverty sadly common in the world today and throughout human history where large masses of people are literally one failed crop, one drought, one swarm of locusts away from starvation. Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, were both descendants of the royal House of David, but that hardly mattered in an age where the throne was occupied by Herod, a ruthless stooge of the Romans, not even Jewish. Judea was a conquered province, liberated from the brutal Seleucid Greeks by the Maccabees, only to be subjugated again by the Roman Empire. You can almost imagine the look of surprise on the face of the Roman general Pompey as he marched into the Holy of Holies, expecting to “see” the Jewish God, only to find it “empty,” but only because he was incapable of seeing. In this occupied territory, under the heel of the puppet ruler in Jerusalem, a virgin named Mary, already engaged, discovered she was pregnant. Mary was likely very young at the time, maybe fourteen. Traditionally, Joseph has been imagined as older, but that’s not really supported by Scripture. He could easily have been only a teenager himself, a carpenter (or maybe a stonemason, the Greek word used in the Bible could mean either) not because he chose the profession, but because it was the trade of his father, and grandfather and probably great grandfather. Peasants didn’t get to pick their careers; they were born to them. We know that Joseph was an observant Jew (“a righteous man”), but when he found out his fiancée was carrying someone else’s baby, he decided to give her a get (divorce) quietly. This seems like a nice gesture on his part, sure, but what we don’t immediately realize from that verse is that Joseph could legally have had Mary put to death for adultery (Deuteronomy 23:23-24). By sparing her life, a decision he made before being visited by an angel and told of the circumstances of the conception, he disgraced his own family and may have very well risked his own life. In fact, it may have been more than a census that persuaded Joseph to run the serious risk of taking Mary on a long journey right as the baby was due; Nazareth was a very small village after all, and word gets around. Joseph may have wanted to avoid the same sort of self-righteous mob Jesus would later shame in John 8:1-11. Bethlehem was a small town, too; it may have been for more than a crowded inn that Joseph and Mary were forced to sleep outside, or maybe in a cave (the Scripture says nothing about a stable). The historical context of Jesus’ birth is all-important to understanding His ministry on Earth and the ultimate significance of His life and death. Jesus was born, literally, dirt poor, to poor parents, in a poor town, in a poor province in the extreme backwater of a world empire. The greatest city in the Old World in those days was certainly not Jerusalem, only recently smashed by Pompey and his Legions; it was Rome. The Jews were certainly not a military or spiritual power in the world; they were considered minor subjects of the Roman Emperor, an annoyingly quarrelsome people with a bad habit of rebellion. The story of an arriving god was not new, of course. Gods were said to have come to Earth before; the Greeks and Romans had legends of it. Sometimes these gods even pretended to be humble; this was different. Jesus was God made man. God voluntarily took on human flesh, not as a king or even a high priest, but as a peasant carpenter in the hind end of nowhere. He could have been born as anyone, even Caesar Augustus, or anywhere, even in the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill, but instead Jesus was manifested in a place and manner that most emphasized His humility. And throughout His brief Earthly ministry, Jesus continued to live among the poor, lived as a poor man Himself; there is no record that He ever owned anything beyond the clothes on His back and the sandals on His feet. His parables reflected the lives of poor people and were told in terms they could understand, a context which is oftentimes lost to us today. When He did mention the rich and powerful, it was to berate them as hypocrites and idolaters. Those preachers who today spin the blasphemous “Health and Wealth” doctrine, the obscene notion that God wants us to be rich, would do well to remember Matthew 19:23-24 and reflect that God is not mocked. Likewise, in a cosmic irony, we purport to celebrate the humble birth of Jesus with a sickening orgy of mass-consumerism and Mammon-worship. You want a War on Christmas? It has nothing to do with what the checkout clerk (making nearly minimum wage with no benefits) says to us as we run up our credit cards buying more crap than you or anyone else you know really needs. It has nothing to do with whether or not a crèche or a menorah or a stone idol of the Ten Commandments is displayed on the courthouse lawn. Those are just talismans, good luck charms, designed to make us feel better as we buy and spend, and eat up and pollute the Earth that is God’s gift to us, as far as we know the only habitable planet anywhere in the eternal universe. Please, for the love of God, and I mean that literally, take some time this season to turn away from the fever of materialism and consider the life the holiday is supposed to celebrate. Do something. Buy a toy for a Christmas angel. Have the kids gather up the toys they don’t play with and the clothes that don’t fit anymore and give them to charity. Put money in the Salvation Army can. Donate food. Donate blood. Donate your time. Think; when we face the Great Apportioner, how likely is it that we’ll get extra points for dying with the most toys? God bless us everyone. Merry Christmas. Da ni s da yo hi hv.