Merry Christmas to Caesar and All His Spiritual Children
Rev. C. W. Powell
(originally published in Reformed Herald, Dec 2007)
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all
the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of
the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he
was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great
with child.” —Luke 2:1–5, KJV
There is nothing new about governments levying taxes, but there is a good story to tell about this particular tax increase.
Luke records precisely the time that this levy was made. It is questioned only by brilliant people who live twenty centuries after the fact who think they know more than Luke. Luke questioned those who lived through those days, but what did they know? That is also nothing really new, either. Some things can be believed or not believed only after attendance for many years at the “best” schools.
Octavian was the grandnephew and heir of Julius Caesar who was assassinated March 15 BC. Octavian became part of a ruling triumvirate made up of Octavian, Lepidus, and Mark Antony. They warred with the Senatorial party, led by Brutus and Cassius, two of the murderers of Julius Caesar.
The Imperial Party won, in the name of the people, of course. Also in the name of the people they instituted a bloody purge and a reign of terror. They divided up the Empire: Octavian ruled Italy and won support of the Italians. Mark Antony married Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, and tried to build an empire in the East. Octavian defeated Cleopatra and Mark Antony in 31 BC. Now master of the empire, he changed his name to Augustus. The name “Augustus” was not chosen by accident. It means “The Exalted.” Never tortured by low self-esteem or doubt, and making sure that all the loose ends were tied up, Augustus Caesar composed a self-assessment of his accomplishments modestly titled, “The Deeds of the Divine Augustus.”
It was widely believed that the poet Virgil had predicted that a savior would come and bring about the “turning point of the ages.” Augustus saw himself as this savior. All of nature would rejoice in his glory. In 17 BC a new star appeared in the sky, and Augustus believed that Virgil’s prediction was fulfilled. He inaugurated a twelve-day Advent in celebration. Augustus certainly believed that the political order was the manifestation of the divinity in all things and salvation was in and through this high point of power—Caesar. “Salvation could come only through the name of Caesar.”
Augustus was the God-king. His coins bore the inscription, “Caesar Augustus, the Son of God.” He believed that the state was the incarnation of God and the voice of the people was the voice of God. He spoke for the people, of course. He was wise and benevolent and knew what the people would want if they knew what was best for them. Peace and prosperity would be brought in by statist action: every need would be met.
But the state that expects to meet every need of its people must be prepared to spend lavishly. To get the money for the programs that offer salvation, it was necessary to tax and tax. Opposition to these taxes had to be ruthlessly suppressed, for nothing could be withheld from the divine order. In order to make taxes efficient, the people had to be registered and this registration must take place in the place of their birth in order to maximize efficiency. No matter how much things change, some things stay the same. “Death and taxes never change,” my grandpa used to say.
Not a thought was given to the inconvenience that such journeys would entail to the weak, the pregnant, the sick, and the old. All the money was Caesar’s anyway, and the needs of the divine order must be met. The lowly must not ask how much their country can do for them, but ask how much they can do for their country. God requires total commitment and sacrifice, and the deified state can ask no less. Caesar didn’t [ask any less], and neither do his descendants. Because of this, “small” tax increases are usually many times larger than “huge” decreases in the rate of tax growth.
The next time you get depressed listening to the modest proposals of candidates who want to be elected as high priest in the temple of humanism, just remember the story of Caesar Augustus and the long journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.
Caesar would not even have known their names, and wouldn’t have given a fig if someone had told him. Herod the Great cared about the news that a king had been born, but who names his newborn son “Herod”? His new dog, maybe.
Caesar died when our Lord was a teenager in Nazareth, growing in wisdom and stature, in favor with God and man. There were the usual ceremonies of a magnificent state funeral and the decree of the senate enrolling him among the gods. But He who sits on the true throne of the universe laughed and had them in derision. And so should we.
Hallelujah! How manifold is the wisdom of God! He makes the power of man foolishness: The most lasting thing that this arrogant Caesar did was to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, to fulfill prophecy and provide for the establishment of the real Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of pipe dreams. I am sure that God has a sense of humor, but His laughter is no comfort to the wicked. I am also certain that you didn’t read this in your college history book.
Rev. C. W. “Bud” Powell
Colorado Springs, CO