Summary: Remember this, the average observer on the evening of the first Christmas, might not have seen Mary and Joseph as particularly blessed. There may have been moments that they doubted it themselves. And yet, they were rich...
Let the poor say, "I am rich"
Dawn and I went to Pennsbury Manor recently. This is the home of William Penn. Oddly enough, the place is almost completely a recreation. Nothing about the grounds or buildings is original. The house is not the house he and his family lived in. It is a reconstruction. Nobody even knows what his original house looked like.
There is one original piece at Pennsbury Manor. It is a pewter serving tray. The tray was a gift from the Penns to a hired worker at his wedding. Since it belonged to someone else it has a strange history. It turns out that a family went outside one winter to find the children sledding down the hill. They didn’t own a sled. When they saw the silver tray they were using for a sled, they took it away and asked where they got it. "It was in the attic," the kid said.
This family had an artifact connected to one of our nation’s premiere families sitting in their attic and they didn’t even know it. It was so little valued that the kids felt free to use it as a sled.
How many people have you known who had something in their attic that had potential value. A friend of ours in a nursing home needed help clearing out her attic and we found hundreds of dollars in cash and change, stashed in old letters and magazines.
The fact is that some people are sitting in homes with treasures in their attics and they don’t know it. Probably some of them could really use the money that would be generated if they just knew the value of what they actually have. Though they are poor, with a little perspective they could see that they are rich. Take Mary and Joseph:
1In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3And everyone went to his own town to register.
4So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7 NIV)
In those days
This is a census. We take one every ten years, when a government temp comes to your house and asks nosey questions. But at the time, Rome took them less regularly. Eventually the settled, for some reason, on once every 14 years. But at this time, they took a census whenever a political need for an expression of allegiance or taxes were needed. If the king was feeling light on his throne, there might be a need for a census, to make sure that everyone was doing what they should. The tax might be for a public works project in Rome, but it probably did nothing for the roads between Galilee and Bethlehem.
There is no clear record of this tax, but Quirinius was involved in a very famous tax in 6 AD, that seems to be why Luke clarifies that this is the "first" registration he had a part in. The best scholarship I have seen places this tax sometime around 2 BC, but no earlier than 4 BC. It is a fact that our calendar is wrong in many ways, but there is almost no probability that Jesus was born in 1 AD. That’s what you get when you leave governments in charge of something.
They were poor
The Bible makes it clear that Joseph was of Royal descent. David, of course, was raised in Bethlehem. This means that Joseph’s ancestral home was there. Some have claimed that since taxes were based upon land ownership, that Joseph must have owned land in Bethlehem. That doesn’t seem to be the case, since he had to seek lodging. If he owned property, why would he not simply go there? Perhaps he was born there, but there is no way of knowing for sure. What is certain is that he was from the line of Judah and Bethlehem is in Judah’s tribal territory. Galilee is not. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, any family connection Joseph had to land ownership would have been in the south. Either way, being from the line of David, he probably at least had distant family living there.
Make no mistake though, the fact that he was from the royal line did not mean he was rich. There had not been a king from David’s line for more centuries than America has been in existence. In fact, Herod, the local king was not even Jewish. If anything, he would have looked at people from David’s line with suspicion. Joseph was not welcome among the official aristocracy.