Luke starts his story of the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-7) with a description of the Emperor’s decree for a census. There are two purposes to mentioning this decree. The first is to give a reason for why Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth.
The second reason is to put the idea of the Emperor in his reader’s minds. For Luke’s readers, who like him, are non-Jewish Roman citizens, the concept of the Emperor brings to mind images of largess. The start of the emperor’s reign was greeted with great fanfare. It was proclaimed throughout the empire as ‘Good news’ for everyone and celebrated with great ceremony. Luke’s audience will be aware of this. A new emperor or a new heir to the emperor was big news for them because for most of them, the Emperor was the most important person in the world.
In contrast to this Luke describes the birth of Jesus. For Luke, Jesus is the most important person born in history. He was born in amongst the animals because there wasn’t room ‘in the inn’ (or ‘guest room’). It is suggested by many commentators that the ‘inn’ was more a guest room at a family house. Bethlehem was probably too small to have a commercial inn and it was common to have guest rooms for visiting friends and family. At the time of a census, there would have been many family members visiting, meaning that Mary and Joseph were settled in the room for the animals. Jesus was born with very little in terms of material possessions or comfort. And yet he was, for Luke, the most important person in history.
What does this say about the add-ons of life? It makes me wonder how much value I put on the things that aren’t really important. It also makes me wonder how much I judge others by the superficial things in life.