How did the innkeeper get into the Christmas story? It's time to celebrate Christmas again and it gets harder and harder to separate what really happened when Jesus was born from the layers of storytelling we have added to the Biblical account. For some of us Santa and the reindeer and all the rest of That Story are just fun, and for others annoying, but we don't attach any significance to it. It is more of a distraction to our celebration of Christmas than a meaningful part of it ( for some people that is ALL there is to Christmas but that is for another blog). But, how much of our traditional celebration of Christmas is more fantasy than reality. We have all seen our share of Christmas pageants and we know the parts better than we know the Bible. How does a cruel innkeeper get into the Christmas story? Was Jesus born in a cave, a stable, or a home? Why couldn't Joseph find any place in Bethlehem, his home town, to stay for the census? Was Jesus born the same night his parents arrived in Bethlehem? In a cold, inhospitable, stable surrounded only by animals? Why did the shepherds come?And if they found Jesus and his family shivering around a manger in a stable, why didn't they think to help out this poor family?
Kenneth Bailey, who lived and taught New Testament for forty years in the Middle East, sheds light on our traditional misinterpretations of the Nativity story and when we look at these blessed events from a Middle Eastern perspective they look a little different from what we may be used to.
Joseph was going to his ancestral home when he journeyed to Bethlehem. He was taking his betrothed wife who was pregnant with their first child. There may have been some family talk about how all this came about but he surely had family and friends in town he could call on. He had time to arrange a place to stay, too. Our idea of the holy family making a long trip and finding no place to stay, including being turned away cruelly from the local inn, so baby Jesus had to be born in a cold stable welcomed by no other people, only animals, is not true to the customs and culture of the world into which he was born. Mary had family close by too (Luke 1:39) so if Joseph's relations did not come through, certainly, Mary's would have. Besides, Joseph was from a royal family. He was descended from the great King David. Bethlehem was known as the "city of David". Another good reason why he would have found little difficulty locating a place to stay.
Nearly all village homes in that day were two room dwellings. One was the family living space and the other was a guest room. The family stayed together and at night the family's valued animals were brought inside for warmth (the family's warmth!) and protection. Usually, the animals were separated by a makeshift wall from the family sleeping area. The "inn" in town was actually a guest room in the home Joseph was going to stay at. The presence of a cruel innkeeper and the tradition that Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room for his family in the inn (Luke 2:7) can be attributed to the English translation of a word that simply means "a space". In our Western reading of the English text our minds naturally think of a large hotel with plenty of rooms and by the time Mary and Joseph got there the no vacancy sign was already out. There is another Greek word Luke uses in the Good Samaritan story that means a commercial inn but the word he uses here is "katalyma" which means "a place to stay." Luke uses that word to describe the upper room where Jesus ate the last supper with his disciples (Luke 22:10-12). It commonly meant a guest room in a family home. So, is Luke telling us that Jesus was placed in a manger in the living area of a village home because their guest room was already occupied? Because the animals were kept in the house at night, there was a manger dug out in the floor at one end of the room. When Jesus was born, he was laid in the manger. Given the obligation of hospitality in this part of the world, the birth of Jesus makes more sense when we know he was welcomed into the world as any other baby would have been.
Jesus was born in the style of most of the people in his world. He was welcomed by the common people of the village. The obligation of hospitality in that part of the world ensured that any baby would be welcomed. Jesus was welcomed before anyone knew who he was. He was named Jesus which was a common Palestinian name (Hebrew = Joshua) which means "he saves". Many mothers hoped their newborn son would be the God sent Savior of their people.
Since God could have had his son born into any family he chose, it is significant that he was born into a poor family of which there were many. Jesus was not born to privilege or power. To take this theme of common people one step further, there was no group more common than shepherds. Because of their dirty jobs and low reputation, they were looked down on by everyone. How ironic that they were the ones to witness the full angelic chorus and get the first invitation to the birth day. The 'sign" to them was that the baby was "one of them", poor and common, since he was wrapped in "cloths" and lying in a "manger"! Certainly not a birth with rich or royal trappings. One the shepherds felt comfortable attending! So they did. But they were not uncaring rubes and if they had felt that Jesus and family were not properly cared for, they would have offered to take them in! Finding them adequately provided for, they went on their way,praising and glorifying God for all they had seen and heard.