Decoding Christmas—The tax-rebel Jesus

December 25, 2015 § 2 Comments

According to Luke, the holy family went to Bethlehem to register in the census decreed by Tiberius. A state-mandated census is all about one thing: taxes. The dates are a little off; that tax went down in the year 6 CE. But the accuracy of the date is inconsequential. The real consequence of that tax was that it led to a tax rebellion that the Romans had a little difficulty putting down.

(Technically under the law, state taxes were illegal in the first place, because the only reason for a tax system was a standing army and a hierarchical administration. When King David orders a census preparatory to a tax to support the new imperial government he was creating, the prophet Gad condemns him—indeed, he condemns himself, realizing his sin (2 Samuel 24). Solomon has no such compunctions, however, for he had to support the new state apparatus and his armies somehow.)

Jesus became a tax rebel himself. I suspect that Luke associated his birth with that revolt because of Jesus’ abiding hatred of the Roman taxation system—and for that matter, even for the temple tax that supported the Quisling government in Jerusalem. For the people of Palestine were double-taxed: they owed a tithe to the temple-state in Jerusalem and they paid poll taxes to the Romans whenever they went anywhere. Finally, the temple-state owed tribute to Rome.

When Jesus was required to pay the temple tax, he had Peter go fishing. When that “fisher of men” came back, they pulled the required coins out of the fish’s mouth; that is, Jesus got some converts to pay it for him. And while he was at it, he had an acerbic comment about the rich and powerful: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take toll or tribute? [refers to the Roman toll tax and the tribute owed Rome by the temple-state in Jerusalem] From their children or from others?” (Matthew 17:24–27). “From others,” answered Simon. “Then the children are exempt,” answered Jesus, meaning, of course, the children of God.

When Jesus was challenged to pay the imperial tax, he famously answered, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s,” knowing full well that his listeners knew they owed God everything—they were to love God with all their heart and all their soul and all their strength (and “strength” included all one’s material wealth)—which left nothing for Caesar.

Jesus also had a special thing for the publicans. Publicans were the Jewish tax farmers who worked for the Romans collecting their tax and who were legally allowed to charge a percentage as their pay for services. However, the system attracted the venal, grasping, and corrupt. The Romans often looked the other way if the publicans skimmed a little extra—or even a lot. Jesus apparently focused special attention on this group with his evangelism because he was all about relieving the economic burden on his people, and the tax collectors were a big part of the problem. Zacchaeus is the model for this ministry (Luke 19).

* From The Rebel Jesus, by Jackson Brown

  • We guard our world with locks and guns
  • And we guard our fine possessions
  • And once a year when Christmas comes
  • We give to our relations
  • And perhaps we give a little to the poor
  • If the generosity should seize us
  • But if any one of us should interfere
  • In the business of why there are poor
  • They get the same as the rebel Jesus

Decoding Christmas—No room at the inn

December 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

The holy family making do with a barn on the night that Jesus was born is often presented as a sign of their humbleness, even of their poverty.

However, any family in first century Palestine who, under the burden of double taxation under the Roman Empire, could still afford an ass and had the cash to pay for a room at an inn was solidly in the “middle class” or better.

Moreover, if we are to believe Luke, Jesus’ uncle was a presiding priest in the temple and his mother was descended from none other than Aaron, first priest of Israel. In its priestly fashion, this is a lineage as impressive as the Davidic genealogy that Matthew gives us.

Meanwhile, peasants in first century Palestine slept with their animals as a matter of course. The standard peasant home was a one-room building, often with a sleeping loft, and some of their animals often sheltered in a corner of the first floor, often in a sunken area that served to keep them from coming up into the living quarters. I suspect this was because their pastures were often quite a distance from the village and were not fenced. So a manger might have been a regular feature of your own home.

On the other hand, Joseph was a tradesman and therefore probably slept over his shop, rather than over his animals . . . although there was that ass. So the stay in the barn may have been for Luke a symbol of the peasantry’s acceptance of the messiah Jesus, just as the story of the shepherds signified the acceptance of the more conservative and more pastoralist people inhabiting the highlands, the “hills from whence cometh my help”. Jesus would call upon that help when borrowing another ass for the procession into Jerusalem at the culmination of his prophetic career at the beginning of Passion Week, on what we now call Palm Sunday.

Jesus procured that later ass in order to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 *, which is itself a kind of reverse echo of the ass provided David in the very same spot when he was forced to flee his son Absolom’s rebellion. [* Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Behold, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.]

The ass was the preferred cavalry mount of the ancient tribes of Israel. They were extremely sure footed and hardy, and could go without water five times as long as a horse. They were ridden into battle by the heads of the mispaha, the military unit of ancient Israel that was based on “clans”—family groups—and/or small settlements. So the original Christmas ass may have been another symbol of the salvation that the “triumphant and victorious”, if still infant, messiah was going to bring.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Decoding Christmas category at Through the Flaming Sword.