Friday, December 1, 2023

Christmas Confusion -- Was Jesus Turned Away from an Inn?

Some of the best-loved stories in the Bible are the stories of Jesus’ birth. Every year, Christians revisit them. We read about how Jesus was born in a stable, maybe we see a Christmas pageant that reenacts the moment. We might hear a sermon about how the angels announced his birth to lowly, despised shepherds in the field. We sing songs, like “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” These are familiar stories, familiar carols.

     And, very often, some of the things we believe about those stories and pass on in them are, well, wrong.

     Sorry, I hate to be that guy, shooting holes in beloved stories. But the Bible doesn’t say some of the things we’ve traditionally believed about those stories. 

     Oh, I don’t think there are egregious errors in our Christmas stories. It would probably be fine if we never corrected them, honestly. The errors have noting to do with how reliable Scripture is, and they didn’t come about through people intentionally trying to deceive. Some of them came about because the stories of Jesus’ birth have been so often interpreted — in preaching, writing, and art — that some mistakes were bound to creep in. Some have to do with having more information about the language and culture of the New Testament.

     So, as we lead up to Christmas, I want us to look at a few of these Yuletide fallacies that just never seem to go away. Let’s correct them, and maybe see if there’s something more in these stories than we had imagined.

     And let’s just get the most beloved one out of the way first. That way, if you hate me and don’t want to read any more, you won’t have wasted the time already.

     Ahem…Jesus was not born in a stable.

     What’s that scraping sound? Sounds a little like…knives being sharpened? 

     Well, I’m sorry, I really am. I know you may have played the innkeeper in a Christmas pageant sometime, the one who turned Mary and Joseph away when they got to Bethlehem. Of course you probably already know that there isn’t an innkeeper in Luke 2:7, that’s a little artistic license to show how, as the King James Version says, “there was no room for them in the inn."

     Well, there wouldn’t have been an inn either. Bethlehem was near Jerusalem, by our standards, but it was not Jerusalem. And even in Jerusalem there wouldn’t have been an inn on every corner. Bethlehem wouldn’t normally have had need of an inn; in Jesus’ time, estimates are that maybe 3,000 people lived there. When people traveled to Bethlehem, they likely stayed with family or acquaintances already there. The importance of hospitality in Jesus’ day was magnified by the fact that there was no Motel 6 available.

     The translation of the KJV is an assumption; the word translated “inn” can also mean “guest room.” It’s the same word, by the way, that’s used at the end of Luke, when Jesus tells his disciples to follow a man home and ask about a “guestchamber” (KJV) where they can eat together. Wonder if it was intentional that two of the three New Testament usages of this word bookend the story of Jesus’ life in the Gospel of Luke? 

     Incidentally, Luke uses a different word when he specifically does mention an inn, in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

     So it likely wasn’t an inn that was too full for them. It was a house. The home of extended family or friends, already overextended by hosting other travelers from other places who had come to Bethlehem for the Roman census. Maybe family members had subdivided their house into sleeping quarters for travelers. Maybe they had an extra room. But whatever they had was full. As the NRSV says, “there was no place in the guest room.”

     So what about the stable? Well, again, the Bible doesn’t say “stable.” It mentions a manger, a feeding trough for animals, but it doesn’t mention a stable.  

 We know a little about houses in Jesus’ time. Average homes tended to be one room, where the family cooked, ate, and slept. (Our concept of privacy would have been alien to them.) Often there was a flat roof that provided more living (and sleeping) space. You can imagine it wouldn’t take many travelers with bedrolls spread out on the floor to fill up a house like that.

     There was one other bit of space in the house. Usually it was a little lower than the main room, with a floor that sloped toward the door. That was necessary for cleaning; this space was for animals. If a family had a goat or sheep or whatever, they would come into the house at night, or to eat or drink. They were safe there from predators or thieves. They couldn’t wander off and get into trouble. And, yes, there were feeding troughs, in the house, either cut into the floor or portable ones made of wood. 

     So what seems most likely is that instead of giving birth in a crowded room full of travelers, Mary brought Jesus into the world in the area of the house where the animals slept and ate. 

     It wouldn’t have been a “silent night,” would it, in a houseful of people, some snoring, some talking, trying to get their excited kids to go to sleep, some maybe even grumbling about the sounds of labor keeping them awake?  

     But it was a holy night. One thing about this reconstruction of the story that I like is that Mary wouldn’t have been alone. Older women who had birthed children of their own would have been there to help, as would have been the custom. Jesus would have come into the world among family — extended family, maybe even family they had never met, but family just the same. He was born in David’s city, with the tribe of Judah all around him. 

     What’s more holy than that? It’s fitting that Jesus, who came to save his people, was born among those people. That the one who never tried to look away from the need around him was born in a crowded house full of Jacob’s descendants doing what life required of them. The one who the prophet Isaiah called “God with us” was, from his birth, with people.

     If people had only known, right? If they had only known who was being born? Maybe they would have found a better place for Mary and Joseph. Then again, they were welcomed in extraordinary circumstances by an already-stressed homeowner doing their best to provide shelter and food for exhausted travelers.

     Told this way, the story of Jesus’ birth isn't about human blindness and deafness to God. It reminds us that Jesus intends to be among people. He intends to rub elbows with them, brush up against them. We don’t have to be alone to meet him; we can encounter him in crowded, loud, chaotic places where it doesn’t seem like there’s room for him. But God can and does make room.

     And we’re reminded that, if we want people to know Jesus, we can’t avoid them or hold them at arm’s length. We, too, will have to be willing to be crowded by their needs, their struggles, their impatience, their honest attempts to just get from one day to the next. If we’re waiting for the “right” moment to bring Jesus into someone’s life, maybe we’d do better to settle for the “wrong” moment. When it’s time, it’s time, no matter how crowded and chaotic life might be.

     That’s a good thing to remember this time of year. Maybe we don’t represent Jesus best by avoiding the chaos and noise and crowds of the season, but by embracing it all, welcoming it, and helping faith to be born in the middle of it. 


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