Justice for the Poor and Peace on Earth: Luke’s Christmas Message
I have argued that the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth causes problems for one of Luke’s major themes: his emphasis on Jesus’ humanity. But Luke is creative and addresses this problem by using his Infancy Narrative to stress other major emphases that will be repeated throughout his Gospel: Jesus and the in-breaking Kingdom of God will mean justice for the poor (we might call this the Jubilee theme) and peace on earth (inaugurated in the nonviolence of Jesus and his followers).
Luke really tells us of two miracle births: John the Baptizer’s and Jesus’. The two are compared which may indicate that Luke is also tackling a Baptizer movement (the author indicates in Acts that such a movement existed) by arguing that, great as John was, his mission was only to prepare the way for Jesus. The Annunciation to Zechariah (John’s father) says that Elizabeth, like Sarai/Sarah, will conceive though both parents are past the usual age for children. John will be a Nazarite (no strong drink or wine) and will be like Elijah in popular Jewish piety–preparing the way of the Lord. The Annunciation to Mary is modeled more on that to Hannah (Samuel’s mother) and Mary’s Magnificat echoes Hannah’s song at Samuel’s birth.
Compare and contrast: Because old age birth miracles have precedent, Zechariah’s skepticism is met as a sign of lack of faith and he is struck dumb. But Mary’s question (“How can this be, since I have never known a man?” I.e., Mary is a virgin. Ancient people did not have our biological knowledge, but they knew enough to know that sex was a necessary precursor to pregnancy!) is logical and not taken as a lack of faith–there is no punishment, but Elizabeth’s pregnancy is offered as a sign. John will have the Holy Spirit “even from his mother’s womb,” but the Holy Spirit is the very agent of Jesus’ conception. John will be like Elijah, but Jesus will be given “the throne of his father David,” i.e., will be the Messiah.
In the Magnificat, Mary breaks forth out of the role of popular Christian piety over the centuries of a mild, beatific and humble woman to speak revolutionary words that would do justice to the Maccabees. God’s mercy on those who fear God; the proud are scattered, the mighty toppled from their thrones; those “of low degree” (including Mary) are exalted; the hungry are fed and the rich sent away empty. Liberation! Similar themes are given in Zechariah’s song (the Benedictus): About Jesus, Zechariah says: Horn of salvation (rescue, freedom from enemies) from the “House of his servant David.” Of John, Zechariah says, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” Salavation is described in both terms of freedom of oppression and in terms of “forgiveness of their sins.” Zechariah also believes John (and Jesus?) will “guide our feet into the way of peace.”
In the Christmas story itself, the setting is that of imperial oppression. A forced census to aid in greater collection of tribute to imperial masters. Occupation. A forced journey in late pregnancy. Hospitality denied (no room at the inn)–a vulnerable birth in a stable with an animal’s feeding trough as a first cradle.
The Annunciation to the Shepherds (low caste, representing the anawim, the “pious poor” of the land) is filled with these themes: Good News for ALL people (not just the elites), city of David (instant overtones of Messianic hope), Savior/Liberator, Messiah the Lord.
Modern translations have the hymn of the heavenly host as “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those with whom God is pleased.” This is grammatically possible and based on ancient manuscript evidence. But Brad Young argues persuasively in Jesus the Jewish Theologian for the alternative reading, “and on earth peace, good will among men/people.” The promise of universal peace was too much a part of the Jewish messianic hope. Restricting that to a peace for the favored fits too much the watered down pietism of modern evangelicalism, not the Jewish hope that Luke saw Jesus fulfilling.
Luke’s visitation is not from wealthy foreign astrologers (the Magi), but from the Shepherds–the poor and outcast who then become the first evangelists, spreading the good news that they heard from the angels and saw in the stable.
Justice for the poor; peace on earth. No matter what our views on the historicity (or not) of the Virgin Birth, the true Christmas message in Luke is that God’s Revolution (“Kingdom of God”) has broken into history in Jesus and it will be radical good news for the poor and marginalized and oppressed and lead to universal peace. (It also includes repentance and forgiveness; we need to break from the world’s patterns of domination, violence, and greed–accept forgiveness and follow Jesus in a new path.) That’s a message we need today–and it is far too absent in many contemporary churches.