When Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago, his human parents might have been descended from David, King of Israel, but their earthly estate was meager and lowly. Judea was a backwater in the expanding Roman Empire; the Jews were troublesome subjects for their pagan Roman overlords. Joseph and Mary were not, in any case, among the wealthy elite of the time.
But even the wealthiest and most powerful people of the day were subject to the rampant infections caused by poor public hygiene. Their average lifespan was short; the common man's was shorter still—estimated to be around forty years—due to war, famine, and disease. The vast majority of humans had to scratch their daily bread from the earth, tending animals or growing crops. Often they scratched for a master, and received their bread from his hand. The institution of slavery was widespread in most of the earth; Jews and gentiles alike were subject to it.
The middle class, such as it was—merchants, well-to-do farmers and vintners, tax collectors and physicians—lived in conditions that today's Americans would perceive as rank squalor. A man was well-satisfied if he owned one dyed woolen robe. Few had the means to preserve foodstuffs and keep them for more than a few days. Measures for evacuating human waste from home or village were primitive and largely ineffective in preventing disease.
Rome herself, while she promoted abroad a certain level of enlightenment and order, was a hard and often brutal taskmaster to conquered peoples. When Augustus Caesar declared that "all the world should be taxed" (Lk. 2:1), his purpose was to make conquered peoples like the Judeans pay for the expenses Rome incurred in ruling over them. ("Registering" the people, as newer translations render this decree, was done to facilitate taxation. It was not a benign, unrelated government activity.)
Rome, of course, justified its occupation as a means of "protecting" Judea and the surrounding lands from Eastern marauders. The Roman historian Livy acknowledged, perhaps a bit wryly, that the expansion of Rome was accomplished through a series of "defensive" moves designed to secure Rome's border regions.
With Rome came order, opportunity, brutality, soldiers, and taxes. Roman citizens were more equal than others. But the peoples of the time were actually comfortable with the idea of inequality among humans. This didn't mean that individuals failed to recognize unfairness when it happened to them. But it meant that there was no agenda in law, no organized task of the human spirit, to ensure that everyone was treated the same. Rome's pioneering efforts in this regard were centered on the men of the republican-era yeoman class; in Rome, as elsewhere in the ancient world, slaves and women were simply considered inferior.
The Law of Moses, under which the Jews lived, was unique in according God-given rights to slaves and inescapable obligations to masters. It was unusual, too, in regarding women as independent moral actors, with rights and even authority under the law of God. But wherever they lived in Rome's empire, the Jews in their earthly lives were subject to the decrees of Caesar. Rome attained her power by the sword—often unfairly—in a deeply and cruelly unfair world.
Jesus' entrance into this world was inauspicious. His parents' humble estate meant that, while they were making arrangements with Caesar, Jesus was born in a stable among animals. His mother, during her engagement to Joseph, had become pregnant out of wedlock—something decreed by the law to be a sin, and certainly a stain on her character. Joseph had to spirit the family out of Judea when Jesus was a baby because King Herod, hoping to kill the promised One of God, ordered the slaughter of all the infant boys under the age of two (Mt. 2:13-18).
Jesus grew up in the lower middle class of his day, in conditions modern Americans would consider to be grinding penury. As an adult, he lived an itinerant life, supported by the kindness of those among his followers who had means—some of them women (Lk. 8:3). He did not establish a home or a lineage, nor did he enter politics or seek power or favor. He lived humbly among the Judeans, in the unfair conditions of the time, when women were silenced and slaves could be beaten to death by a master's will, and when Rome could make whatever demands occurred to her on her overtaxed subjects.
Jesus changed none of these things while he was on earth. But all of them have been changed, in various times and places, by Jesus' redeemed people in the centuries since. What a beginning it was, those twenty centuries ago, when Jesus came as a newborn baby to live among us. The world then was a darker place for the average person: brutal, dangerous, ignorant, and unjust. Jesus didn't need to experience that, but he came and lived with it for a time.
He didn't regime-change the empire; he didn't rewrite the law or adjust the "distribution" of wealth; he didn't explain the solar system or provide antidotes to infections; he didn't abolish slavery or proclaim the equality of women. Doing those things wasn't the purpose for his life on earth.
He came here, to this cynical, mean-spirited, ugly-hearted world of men and women, to change us—to make us different, to give us new hearts, new eyes, and a new power. And he did.