Let us read the Christmas text (Luke 2:1-7):
The first five verses are about taxes and how to collect them.
Have you ever wondered why Joseph had to go to his birthplace to be taxed? What sense does that make? Was it supposed to be harassment? I don't think so. The Romans had a very effective administration and were interested in taxing the provinces effectively and with simple chicanery you reduce the economic power of a province. And that also means less taxes.
After all, Joseph lived and worked in Nazareth again and also paid taxes there. And the towns of Bethlehem and Nazareth certainly didn't compare their data electronically, they probably didn't compare them at all. So what was the point of the registration in Bethlehem?
I found a page on the internet where the knowledge about the Roman Empire is collected (imperiumromanum.com) and the tax system is also described there, as far as it is known.
The most important tax in the Roman Empire was the land tax. It was levied either at a fixed rate or depending on the annual yield. Since a large part of the economic output in the Roman Empire was achieved through agriculture, most of the tax revenue could be generated through this.
And I think, but this is just a guess on my part, that this is why Joseph had to go to Bethlehem. His family came from there and perhaps he still had land there, which he had probably leased out. And for the land tax he had to go there and be registered. Of course, that's just a guess on my part, but it seems logical to me.
There were other taxes: a poll tax, which had to be paid on the basis of the number of family members, regardless of income or wealth. This was certainly recorded and collected in Nazareth, where Joseph lived with his family.
Augustus also had a sales tax of 1% introduced in the Roman Empire at that time, i.e. a value added tax, but unfortunately nothing is known about the assessment and the method of collection. Apparently it was mentioned in some document. The slave trade was even taxed at 4%.
What we can still gather indirectly from this text is that the Roman administration was not only effective but also tough as nails. Postponing the arduous journey to spare the pregnant Mary was not an option. They were not as nice as our tax offices, where a short email is enough to postpone the tax return and it is usually not a problem.
But let's leave that for now with the taxes, it is Christmas after all.
Much more interesting is the origin of Joseph. He belonged to the house and descendants of David. I believe that Joseph would have been the king of Israel if the kingship had not been destroyed by the misbehaviour of the last kings of Judah. This is also just a guess on my part, but it would of course fit with Jesus being the real Son of David, the real successor of David.
We don't know much about Joseph. Nor do we know his age, by the way. In Christian tradition, Mary is often described as very young and Joseph as quite old. We find nothing of this in the Bible. These ages come from apocryphal writings, some of which are quite strange and which were not included in the Bible for good reason. Therefore, don't let anyone tell you anything about the age of Joseph and Mary, the Bible says nothing about it.
We know Joseph's occupation, carpenter, and we know he was a decent guy. When Mary became pregnant before he had consummated the marriage with her, he wanted to leave her secretly and take the blame on himself so as not to get Mary into trouble (Matthew 1:19). In most Bible translations the word "righteous" stands for his behaviour, but this is not only meant in the legal sense, but considerably more comprehensive: the term includes responsibility for one's fellow man, love and mercy (word explanation from the Good News).
Joseph's behaviour in this situation is already a reference to his later stepson Jesus. The word "just" also applies to Jesus, and even more so than to Joseph. He was perfectly righteous in the legal sense, in that he bore the just punishment for our sins. And he was also characterised by love, mercy and responsibility for his fellow human beings.
I am always impressed when people really put a price on decent behaviour. But Jesus gave much more, he gave everything, for us, for you and me.
The child in the mangerLet us return to the text. Two verses describe the birth of Jesus, fewer verses than those for the census:
One wonders where the ox and donkey are. They probably come from the fact that in other biblical passages where a manger is mentioned, the ox and the donkey appear, e.g. Isaiah 1, 3; LUT
But the question is, were there animals in the stable at all? We know that the shepherds were outside with their sheep, and the question arises whether the ox and the donkey were not also out in the pasture. When was the birth of Jesus really? You can keep sheep and cattle outside all year round, but you have to offer them shelter, especially in damp cold weather, and in Bethlehem it can go down to freezing point in winter and the animals would then have to go into the stable. I googled all that together.
But now the shepherds were out at night, so the weather was probably not quite so cold; so maybe the other animals were out too.
But somehow that's not important at all: "They hadn't been given a place to stay in the shelter." That is the central statement here.
It is similar to this in John 1:11,12; NGÜ;
Somehow they waited for him, the Messiah, but when he really came, they had no place for him, no shelter.
I think that is not so rare. There are quite a few people who are looking for God, but they don't want to give him a place, an accommodation, in their lives. The way is the goal, which also means that one never wants to reach the goal.
Nevertheless, those who want to arrive, who receive him, Jesus Christ, become God's children.
And this is what I wish for the congregation: that guests, outsiders, neighbours, we ourselves, in case we have forgotten, recognise that Jesus has his place, his accommodation here, that he can be found here and that we live in such a way that we are seen to be God's children.
I summarise once again:
- The Roman administration was effective, but also tough as nails. So Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem.
- Joseph was from the house of David and would probably also have been king if the kingship had not fallen. This fits Jesus as a true successor of David.
- Joseph was just, not only legally, but also in the sense of responsibility for his fellow man, love and mercy. Thus he was a kind of forerunner of his stepson Jesus.
- The child had no place in the shelter. Somehow they were waiting for him, but when he was there, they did not want him. But those who receive him become God's children and that is what I wish for everyone here.