The Holy Family's Terrible Family
Joseph and Mary came into a crowded Bethlehem. Men and women were there from all over the Jewish world. These crowds had come to register for the Roman census. The commonly told story says that, because of the numbers of people in town, there was no room for the holy family in the local hotels. Joseph went from door to door, searching valiantly for a place for his betrothed to give birth. Fortunately, a kindly innkeeper told them they could sleep with his animals. So he either placed them in a barn or a cave, depending on the version of the story. It is truly a lovely story, but there is a small problem. It isn’t exactly found in the Bible.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guestroom available for them.” (Luke 2:6,7 TNIV) Many translations say “there was no room in the inn.” Those versions of the Bible are reading later Christmas stories into the text.
In Greek, the language of the New Testament, there is a perfectly good word for “inn.” That word is not found in this story. Rather, the writer says there was no “living space” available for them.” This phrase, “living space” refers to a room designated for humans in a home. In this culture, people kept both animals and people in the same house. After all, animals were wealth. To keep them out in a barn or a cave would have been both impractical and foolish, especially in a city. People had a room or two in their homes for their families as well as a room for the animals. Often this room was a step or two down from the rest of the dwelling.
Here is one possible scenario for how they ended up in the animals’ room. Joseph brings his young, pregnant fiancé to suburban Bethlehem. He is the distant relative from out in the sticks who has come into the “big city.” Somehow his live-in girlfriend has become pregnant. No one knows who the baby’s father is, though these two claim it is God. Joseph is poor, has a funny accent, and lives in an area known for mixed races and pagan worship. His family in Bethlehem share little more than his blood. They are of a higher and more pure class than he is. They don’t want to have anything to do with Joseph and his “lady.”
However, because of their honor they can’t let him sleep in the street. That just wouldn’t do, not in a culture so invested in hospitality. At the same time, they can’t have these people in their house. What to do? They put the country cousin and his girlfriend with the animals. Yes, they offered hospitality. But they also made sure that Joseph and Mary knew their place. Joseph is in no position to refuse.
This story won’t be shown in our church Christmas pageant. No one sings songs about Joseph’s family rejecting him. Of course, this is just one possibility. Perhaps the family house was just so crowded that there was literally nowhere else but with the animals. No one knows, and Luke does not bother to make things clear.
This might serve as a reminder that Christ was always an outsider. Though Son of God and King of the Universe, he was born to a lowly family in a lowly place. As John’s Gospel says “he came to that which was his own, but his own people did not receive him.” He was such an outcast that he wasn’t even born in a normal room. He was birthed among animals and laid in a feeding trough.
We may sometimes feel cast out. Perhaps you are the black sheep of your family. You feel rejected, like they would rather have you sleep in the garage. Perhaps you are the one looking down your nose at your relatives. You just can't bare the thought of those people coming into your home. In any case, it is important to remember that the One we are expecting comes to us through the lowest of places. He knows our suffering, and he commands us to receive the lowly in his Name.