Mary and Joseph lived in a real world at a specific time in history.
In his astounding account of the life of Jesus, Dr. Luke cites dates and locations to anchor his report in verifiable facts. Rome taxed Joseph and Mary in many ways: money, energy, convenience and personal risk. At the late stages of a pregnancy, a young mother-to-be should not have to trek 40+ miles past Jerusalem down to Bethlehem, the City of David.
It is easy to imagine Joseph’s anger and frustration. A good man wants to control things and Joseph must have felt he could control nothing. Ignoring the taunts and whispers of the town he served, he tried his best to provide Mary with everything she needed and now this! A decree from a godless heathen miles and miles away but with soldiers enforcing his mandates very close by destroyed every plan Joseph had made for Mary and the child to come. There was no denying or delaying the journey. They would just have to trust God, that is all. It had come to that!
Through the centuries as this story is told and retold, imagined and reimagined, we have settled on the image of Joseph leading the donkey bearing young Mary, great with child, through the hills and valleys of taxation. So much pain! And it all seems so unnecessary!
God had a purpose in their pain.
He always does. Unlike this young couple striding and bouncing their way south to Bethlehem, God sees beyond the next hill or bend of the road. He never loses track of either the destination in the distance or the pain in the journey. Just as each human being enters this world through pain, so must Messiah if He was to live the sinless life redemption required.
This fallen creation, once so pristine and perfect, was now riddled with pain and in imperfection. Just as Rome needed an accounting of the citizens of Israel, a sinful world needed a full accounting of its evil deeds and desires. Jesus, rocking safely in Mary’s womb, carried by a faithful beast of burden, would someday ride another donkey through Jerusalem’s gates toward the place of His taxation, a place called Calvary.
God has a purpose in our pain.
God does not cause pain but He uses the inevitable pain of this fallen creation to His purposes. Like Joseph and Mary, we live in the real world. We, too, have civic responsibilities that tax us, literally and figuratively. The New Testament is clear on this; faithfulness in these things is part of our witness before the world.
For Joseph and Mary, the facts of the taxation and the birth to come in Bethlehem would serve to document in history the greatest story ever told. In the process, God provided what the torturous journey demanded: safety, provision, and an ever deepening bond between Joseph and Mary. Meanwhile, as the unforgiving road passed beneath them, God was assembling a well-drawn cast of witnesses in fields near Bethlehem, on another long road from the East with a star to guide men wise enough to follow, and a pair of elderly saints praying through each night for Messiah to come.
Luke 2:1-5 KJV
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 Judaea, 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 20:20-26 NKJV
So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, that they might seize on His words, in order to deliver Him to the power and the authority of the governor. Then they asked Him, saying, “Teacher, we know that You say and teach rightly, and You do not show personal favoritism, but teach the way of God in truth: Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But He perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Why do you test Me? Show Me a denarius. Whose image and inscription does it have?” They answered and said, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” But they could not catch Him in His words in the presence of the people. And they marveled at His answer and kept silent.
Romans 13:1-7 NKJV
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
Lord Jesus, someday You will wipe away all our tears and the pains of this life will be only an distant memory. Until then, there will be pain, the tax life demands of each of us. It helps to know that You are with us. We are never overlooked or forgotten. By Your stripes we are healed. So the Bible says and we believe it. Sometimes—praise Your holy name—the healing is here and now!—Hallelujah! Sometimes, the pain persists. Even in this, You are with us, comforting us, strengthening us, and giving songs to sing even in the long nights that tax us so deeply. Thank You for coming to this world to experience the pain of being human. Thank You for lifting us above the pain both now and for removing it completely in eternity to come. In Your Holy Name, Amen.
Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus
Words: Charles Wesley; Music: Christian Friedrich Witt
1. Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.
2. Born thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne.
© 2017 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved