“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world” (Luke 2:1, NIV). Some version of this sentence is so familiar that even people who attend church biannually at most will recognize it as the beginning of “the Christmas story.” Even some who have never been to church will recall Linus reciting this text on the classic television special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The significance of a passage can get buried in familiarity or, perhaps, sentimentality, and this one is in more danger than most. For some, the helpless babe—born among animals to poor parents and visited first by shepherds—primarily signifies God’s condescension and elicits a response of awe and gratitude at the lengths God will go “to save a wretch like me,” as the famous hymn declares. For others, naming “Caesar Augustus” and “Quirinius, governor of Syria,” in the first two verses mainly functions to indicate a specific historical setting for Jesus’ birth. It is, after all, quite typical to specify the time and place of a written text by naming who held political office. Both God’s gracious saving presence in the incarnation and the specific time and place of the passage are important aspects of its significance, but neither is the primary framework for its interpretation. Luke 2 frames Jesus’ birth as a political event that destabilizes the kind of power that earthly rulers wield by telegraphing both the shape of God’s power embodied in Jesus and the privileged access that people on the social margins have to knowledge of God’s ways.
Several signs suggest that Luke is doing more than establishing historical setting by naming Augustus and Quirinius. First, Luke has already indicated at Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary that Jesus will be politically significant: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (1:32-33 NRSV). We readers ought to resist any temptation to spiritualize Jesus’ kingship; all signs in Luke point to Jesus having a real earthly reign, even if it differs from the conventional pattern. David was not a heavenly but an earthly king; the Son of the Most High is to sit upon his rightful throne as the Son of David. Jesus’ annunciation indicates that his reign will have a critical earthly component, which entails some sort of threat to or competition with others who would lay claim to the territory that once belonged to David. Augustus and Quirinius fall into that category, and so, of course, does Herod.
Luke opens the narrative of John the Baptist’s birth with the words, “In the days of King Herod of Judea…” (Luke 1:5) And, as it turns out, John eventually faces imprisonment and execution at the hands of a “Herod” (3:19; 9:7-9). The introduction of Jesus’ birth contains verbal and stylistic echoes of John the Baptist’s, which lightly foreshadows who will be Jesus’ ultimate antagonist. John clashes with the Herodians, and it is Rome’s representative who will finally order Jesus’ execution (23:25). When Luke opens narration of these two births with “Herod” and “Caesar Augustus” and “Quirinius, governor of Syria,” he is setting the timeframe and identifying the sort of power that both John and Jesus arrive to disrupt. God’s way of dealing with the Caesars and Herods of the world is not to send in a conquering army, but—by surprising means—to bring two extraordinary lives into the world. John is born of barren parents who had tried without success for years to have children (1:7); Jesus is born to parents who hadn’t even begun to try (1:34). God’s answer to rulers who wield death-dealing power is to bring life where it is unexpected.
Where Jesus is born, however, is no surprise. For the “Son of David” to be born in “the city of David called Bethlehem” (2:4) is exactly what one would expect. Even the unassuming circumstances of Jesus’ birth echo the scene of David’s first appearance in the biblical narrative. While his brothers are being inspected for possible accession to Israel’s kingship, David is “keeping the sheep” (1 Sam 16:11). Jesus, too, first appears in his story proximate to animals—laid in a feeding trough (1:7) and visited by shepherds (1:15). The circumstances of Jesus’ birth hold together both his royal identity and the solidarity with the marginalized that will characterize his reign. The shepherds are not in the city but “living in the fields” (1:8). They occupy the literal margins. Moreover, they are likely to be on the lower end of socio-economic status among first century inhabitants of Judea. That Jesus’ first visitors are shepherds is not the first narrative sign that his arrival promises good news for the lowly, humble, and oppressed (see Mary’s exultant words in 1:46-55). But the fact that the shepherds are the first to receive news of Jesus’ birth (2:8-10), and that they follow Mary in immediately believing and acting upon the good news the angel brings (1:38; 2:15-20), suggests that people on social margins have unique capacity to understand and shape their lives around the way God wields power in the world. The news of God’s life-giving power made incarnate comes first to lowly shepherds, and they waste no time, but immediately confirm, glory in, and spread the message about what they have seen and heard (2:20). Placing them so centrally in this narrative proves to be one among many instances where Luke both showcases God’s life-giving power and subtly exhorts readers to expect socially disenfranchised people to have unique insight on God’s saving work in the world.  For a helpful study and engagement of scholarly literature on the status and significance of first century Palestinian shepherds represented in Luke’s narrative, see Sarah Harris, The Davidic Shepherd King in the Lukan Narrative, Library of New Testament Studies, 558 (New York: Bloomsbury/T & T Clark: 2016) 62-64.