Thursday, December 16, 2010

Divine Tax?

Consider this famous Bible passage regarding Christ's nativity:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a [tax*] census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first [tax] census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register [to be taxed]. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:1-7

* The terms "tax" and "census" are used interchangeably between translations; please see comments below for details.

Have you ever wondered if there is any significance to the fact that a tax brought Mary and Joseph to the place where Jesus was to be born?

Why didn't God arrange for Joseph and Mary to already live in Bethlehem? Granted, Christ had been prophesied to be a Nazarene, but did God need to have Christ be a Nazarene born in Bethlehem?

If they didn't live in Bethlehem, but Christ needed to be born there, why didn't God arrange for Mary and Joseph to attend a family wedding or some other celebration in Bethlehem? Why force Joseph to schlep all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem for, of all things, a tax?

Considering Mary's pregnancy, I suppose the couple could have cancelled out if it was anything but a legal command that they travel there. After all, it was awkward enough to be unmarried, pregnant, and have to settle for a stable. What might it have been like to attend a family event in their condition in those days? Even if it had been a funeral they felt compelled to attend, how might the older women be clucking their tongues at Mary, and the men giving Joseph grief for not owning up to what they would have believed to be his impertinence?

So, do you suppose there is any significance in Mary and Joseph being forced to travel to Bethlehem to be counted for a tax? And for Christ to be born in Bethlehem as a result of that tax? Why would the sovereign God, Ruler over all history and creation, use a tax? Is it just an onerous detail; what else might have been just as effective in setting the stage for the birth of our Savior?

Might this taxing situation symbolize Christ's earthly submission to governing authorities? Even His birth was timed during a tax season. Throughout all of His life on Earth, did Christ ever become an anarchist? Sure, He and His teachings proved vexing to those in authority, but He never rebelled, led a riot, or even ran for political office.

When suffering the indignities of that travesty of a trial in front of Pilate, He could have vanished from their presence. He could have killed them all. But He endured the torture and crucifixion to fulfill His salvific destiny while allowing the government to enact their vile, baseless punishment upon Him.

Even before that, when the pharisees tried to trick Christ over money and taxes, what did Christ instruct them? "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and render to God the things that are God's." Period. End of discussion. No qualifiers for fairness, affordability, or how the revenue would be used.

Not exactly a commandment that warms the cockles of most Republican hearts, is it?

Don't think for one minute that I like paying taxes. Even in Christ's day, taxes were the bane of civilized society. And quite frankly, considering the nefarious crooks many tax collectors were in those days, our tax code here in the United States looks like a pittance. Fortunately for us, we live in an approximation of a democracy where we have the right to make our opinions known about how much taxes our government collects and where the money should go. And these days, we've got a lot to complain about in that regard! But even as Democratic Representatives currently wrangle over the tax compromise between President Obama and Republican Senators, I wonder if evangelical Christians might be protesting too much.

After all, God gave taxation a crucial role in Christ's prophesied birth.

Try treasuring THAT in your heart this Christmas season!


  1. Census = a tax. I missed that connection in the verses from Luke that you cited. Could you please elaborate, exegete, or else cite the sources that clarify that conclusion please for us?

  2. Good question! I learned this passage as a kid from the King James Version, which substitutes the term "tax" for "census," and I didn't catch that difference in this NIV translation I posted.

    Even if "census" is the more correct term, a census is usually conducted so that governments can calculate taxes, which is what this census was for. Some people go further and bring up the question of whether it was legal for Jews to conduct or be counted in a census, but that's beyond the scope of what I wanted to address here.

    Suffice it to say that perhaps a "tax census" (to determine how many people should be paying taxes) would be more accurate.

    Thanks for asking - I hope this is helpful.


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