Summary: A re-imagining of the role of the innkeeper in the nativity story of Christ.
Then she gave birth to her firstborn Son, and she wrapped Him snugly in cloth and laid Him in a feeding trough--because there was no room for them at the lodging place. Luke 2:7
Now, that’s our verse and it comprises, so far as I know, everything we know about the lodging arrangements, and as importantly, the innkeeper. Yet, year after year, even long before I was ever born, in Christmas plays and shows, at schools and churches throughout the world we’ve often imagined the image of a hard-hearted man, who practically, if not literally, slams the door in the face of Joseph and his very pregnant wife, the virgin Mary.
But I’m suggesting, . . . if we can make up that story using our holy imaginations, there may be another image of this unnamed, even unmentioned innkeeper, one that’s probably much more plausible.
But before we go there, besides this poorly defamed innkeeper, whose storyline we may have wrong, there are other parts of the story we’ve definitely gotten wrong.
We think of Joseph and Mary arriving in Bethlehem with Mary about to pop. They show up late one evening – she might already be having contractions – knock on the door of the 1st century equivalent of Motel 6, but they haven’t phoned ahead so they spend the night in the parking garage, where the baby Jesus is born late into the evening or early the next morning.
But that’s not what the text says at all.
Popular tradition affirms that the child was born the night the family arrived. But in Luke 2:4 we read that Mary and Joseph “went up” to Bethlehem. Then in verse 6 we are told, “And while they were there, the days (plural) were fulfilled for her to be delivered.” So there’s a period of time between the arrival in Bethlehem and the delivery.
So I’m going to give Joseph a little credit here and assume he’s looking around for the best situation possible to accommodate his wife and his child. I’m going to assume that Joseph was competent enough that given the days (plural) he had to search that he could find adequate shelter for the delivery of Mary’s baby. I also suspect Bethlehem was not so hard-hearted that given days to work on his problem – with the negotiating skills of a Jewish carpenter – a businessman with a pregnant wife was not turned away by every good option in town and finally had to just punt, so to speak – or improvise a place for the Lord Jesus to make His grand entrance into the world.
So, what’s the deal? I mean, after all the Bible does say, “There was no room for them at the lodging place.”
Now the Greek used there is most commonly translated “guest room,” or even “upper room.” i.e. the Greek leaves room for this “lodging place” to be a room in a family home, of Joseph’s ancestry, and there are numerous people who will argue that such a case has merit. But I’m not going there today.
For one thing, I’m so disgusted and put off with so-called “religious” people that have no sense of compassion or mercy that it’s hard for me to imagine, no matter who else is in the house (and whether they’ve already called dibs on all the good rooms or not), that someone else in your own family doesn’t give up their space so cousin Joseph and his very pregnant wife will have a place.
By the way, the spin that puts on the story has merit. It’s no longer the story of arriving late and not making reservations. It becomes, instead, the story of rejection by one’s own family on supposedly moral or religious grounds. John wrote about that in his gospel when he writes, “He came to His own and His own received Him not.” We’ve often imagined that to mean Jews in general, but it probably started with not a few members of His own earthly extended family.
I am so glad we’ve realized today that no child is illegitimate.
Whichever is the case, we’ve often imagined the story wrong.
But, for the sake of emphasis, let’s stick with the traditional assumption, that this is a public hotel of sorts. It would make sense. Bethlehem was a bedroom community – a suburb. Lots of people are born there, but most of them eventually move up and out. Houses are small – much too small to accommodate the way family trees spread, especially when everyone is commanded to come home and be taxed, which is what the decree from Caesar Augustus said.
I want you to imagine a new storyline. Every square inch of private accommodations are filled to the brim. People are sleeping out under the stars, exposed to the elements. Tents, like those later made and sold by the Apostle Paul, are pitched everywhere, throughout the country-side. They are there, because people are well aware, especially those who grew up for any length of time in Bethlehem, that space is going to be at a premium. What lodging is available will be pricey – due to supply and demand, but little if any lodging will be found anyway. (Illustration – Canton – 17 calls)