Summary: Why did no one show compassion on Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem?
No Room at the Inn
Rev. Mark A. Barber
In the words of Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Never had a family been given greater promises yet had to endure such privation. This birth was like no other. The angels of God sang at the birth of Jesus; yet the only men who came were dirty and humble shepherds and a few Pagan Magi. The whole Jewish world was eagerly expecting the arrival of this child, yet none of the leaders of the Jewish nation showed up that night. What can we know about the Holy Family? What can we learn about the birth of Jesus Christ by what is and is not said. Come look with me into the greatest story ever told.
The first thing we need to learn is that Joseph and Mary were poor. This is evidenced by the offering made for purification by Mary at the Temple. The fact that she offered up two turtledoves is proof of poverty. There was no room at the inn for them, but if they had enough money, surely one of the guests could have been bought to give up his room. Another piece of evidence of the poverty of the holy Family is evidenced in Joseph’s occupation. The Scripture in Greek says he was a “tekton” as compared to an “architekton” from which we get the word “architect”. An architect in the Greek world was a master builder of some sort. This could be a skilled carpenter or stonemason. By Joseph only being called a “tekton”, it showed he was more of a carpenter’s assistant or even a common day laborer who came to the marketplace every morning in search of work for the day.
We all have read the two Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke. We know of the vision of Zachariah concerning the birth of John the Baptist who would be a forerunner of the Messiah. We remember the beautiful thanksgiving psalms of Mary and Zachariah. We know the story of the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary of Nazareth. What inspiring things were said and promised concerning the Christ child.
If we have ever read the Gospel of Luke or heard the Lukan story through “A Charlie Brown Christmas” we remember the decree of Caesar Augustus that everyone in his empire was to be enrolled for the purpose of taxation. Each Roman province probably had some liberty on how to carry this out. For Quirinius who was serving his first term as the governor of the region of Syria which included Palestine, it was determined to gather the people into clans. As Joseph was of the clan of David, he was instructed to return to his ancestral hometown of Bethlehem. The great Augustus had made a decree, but unknown to this great Caesar, he was just a part of God’s greater plan.
Joseph had recently taken Mary to be his wife under suspicion that he had fathered a child before the consummation of the marriage. He received the order to go to Bethlehem with Mary who as the King James Bible puts is was “great with child”. This would entail journey of about seventy miles from Nazareth over rough, hilly terrain. Could they have even afforded a donkey to put Mary on, or did she have to walk? Even if she was upon a donkey, it would have been a most difficult journey for a woman who was nine month’s pregnant.
As Mary and Joseph approached Bethlehem, the exhausted Mary went into labor. I am sure Joseph looked for a place for Mary to have a child. But the small inn was already filled. She would have to find somewhere else to give birth. But just who was in the inn? They would have been Joseph’s kinfolk. And the people who lived in the town were also his kinfolk. Was there not any one who had room in his heart to show compassion on a pregnant woman? We would expect even a stranger to show mercy to a woman in labor and given up his room for her.
Were Joseph and Mary shunned by Joseph’s kin? Besides lacking any other explanation for the refusal to give place to the wife of a kinsman, we get a clue from the fact that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth, which was Mary’s home town. The town was too small for two family groups to live in it. The characteristic pattern for marriage is that the father of the groom went to contract a marriage with the father of a daughter in another village. This was to prevent inbreeding. In this arrangement, all the men of the village were close kin, and their wives were taken from other villages. So why then did Joseph and Mary not return to Joseph’s home town, but hers? Again, it seems that Joseph was ostracized from his family.