In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. (Luke 2:1-3 NRSV)
Emperors don’t take much account of simple folk, not even of pregnant women. Caesar Augustus decides on a course of action, a decree goes out and the power hierarchy in the empire swings into action. Letters go from Rome to governors throughout the empire, from Gaul to Judea. Further letters go out from the governor in Antioch to the procurator in his winter quarters by the seaside in Caesarea Maritima. The procurator issues orders to his legates, the legates to the centurions, and eventually the word is carried to the village of Nazareth. It’s all very efficient … and quite brutal. The iron fist is always readily available to deal with the recalcitrant.
Who knows why Octavian required a census? Probably so that taxes could be more easily calculated. No one in all the chain of command bothered to think about the disruption that this would cause in the lives of ordinary people. “Caesar vult,” ran the order. Caesar’s word had power in those days … and still does.
Today power is not so evident. In fact, we barely recognize that power for evil exists. We have to remind ourselves that power corrupts, as Lord Acton’s dictum has it. We also have to recognize, as C.S. Lewis noted, that the greatest crimes are “conceived and ordered … by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.” People who are simply doing their jobs and following orders.
All-powerful God of the powerless: Grant us the courage to face the power structures of our time and always witness to the greater power that You wield; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Who in His time confronted those same power structures and overcame them. Amen.