There’s a pastoral couple out in New Jersey in my home denomination, the Reformed Church, Seth and Stephanie Kaper-Dale, who Sara and I knew at Hope. Before they went to seminary, they spent a year working with an RCA-supported orphanage in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Some years ago, Seth wrote a piece about the birth of Jesus, and in the course of the article, he told this story from the orphanage:
A few months into our time there we started taking the kids from the orphanage on field trips into the wealthy parts of the city . . . One day we took a group of kids to a new shopping mall—malls are the rage in the rich sector of Ecuador. When we arrived at the mall by bus we jumped off, and our child companions looked with amazement at the building before them.
“You mean, you’re going to take us in there? We can’t go in there.” Only one boy spoke, but it was clearly the opinion of all the orphans.
“Of course you can go in,” I said. “This is a public shopping center. You are just as entitled to walk around in there as anyone else.”
The kids shrugged their shoulders, and with the permission they needed, they ran off ahead of us to the front door—where armed guards promptly stopped them. Only when the guards saw us, and saw that we were with these kids, were they even allowed to enter the shopping center. Inside, I began noticing shopkeepers and shoppers giving nasty looks to the beautiful children with us. Apparently, the rich could see the impoverished reality of these children, as if their poverty were a visible garment.
There was no place for them in the mall that day.
In society’s eyes, they were unworthy; and just so were Mary and Joseph. We hear the traditional translation that says there was no room for them in the inn, and we tend to project our own experience into it and assume that the inns were all full. The thing is, though, Bethlehem probably didn’t have an inn—only the big cities did; Bethlehem was too small, and too close to Jerusalem. Also, the word Luke uses here isn’t the normal word for “inn”—he uses that one in the parable of the Good Samaritan; rather, it’s a word meaning “guest room”—the same one he uses for the upper room in which Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Last Supper. Which fits, because in that day and age, people didn’t travel all that much, and when they did, they usually stayed with friends and relatives. Given that Joseph was going back to the home of his ancestors, where he would have relatives—distant cousins, perhaps, but family is family—the normal plan would have been to stay in the guest room in one of their homes.
So there’s more going on here than we usually realize. Which shouldn’t surprise us. Stop and think about it—put yourself in the shoes of Mary’s father or mother: your teenage daughter, who’s engaged to a good man, turns up pregnant (disgracing your house, incidentally), and when you ask her who got her pregnant, she says, “God did!” Do you believe her? No, you probably don’t—and judging from the fact that the gospels never mention them, neither did they. In fact, nobody did, unless angels had given them reason to do so. Elizabeth believed her, being herself miraculously pregnant, but Joseph didn’t, until he had his own angelic visitation. As far as the world was concerned, here was a teenage girl who had fooled around, gotten pregnant, and had now concocted this ridiculous story to try to excuse herself; she had brought great shame on herself, Joseph, and both their families, which was no small matter.
This, I think, is one reason Mary went to visit Elizabeth and stayed three months: it got her away from her parents and their disapproval. When she did go back to them, she doesn’t seem to have stayed very long, since Matthew tells us that after Joseph had his dream, he took Mary into his home; it isn’t certain, but it sure looks like her parents kicked her out of the house for getting pregnant, shaming the family, and then lying about it (and perhaps committing blasphemy in the process). The only person Mary had who was both willing and able to care for her was Joseph.
That’s probably why she went with him to Bethlehem. Legally, she didn’t have to; she was neither a taxpayer nor eligible to serve in the Roman army, and thus didn’t need to be registered. As far along as she was in her pregnancy, traveling to Bethlehem wasn’t the best of ideas—better to stay home, if she could. So why did she make the trip? Because she had no place else to go. Her parents had rejected her, Elizabeth had a baby, and she had no other option.
And then, in Bethlehem, she found the same rejection. You would think the extended family should have made room, however crowded things were, for a woman in the last stages of pregnancy—but they refused. They couldn’t quite bring themselves to turn Joseph and Mary out, but they were completely unwilling to show any real hospitality to anyone who had brought such shame on them. They finally allowed Joseph and Mary a grudging spot in the house of one of the family, but not in the upper room, with the honored guests—and not in the part of the main room where the family lived—but only in the lowest part of the house, with the animals, where their dishonor would be plain.
In other words, there was no room for Joseph and Mary in that guest room because their family refused to make room; it was less that there wasn’t room on the floor, and more that there wasn’t room in their hearts. Joseph and Mary had dishonored the family; let them be treated with dishonor. No respectable bed for such a woman, or for her illegitimate child, the fruit of her shame. And so the mother of God was given a place with the sheep and the cow, and the Lord of the Universe was laid in a feed trough dug out of the floor; the Messiah came home to his own people, and his own family rejected him, because he didn’t come on their terms.
And yet, even in this we see the grace of God. Isaiah says, “To us a child is born, to us a son is given,” and that the child’s name was to be Immanuel, “God with us,” and God meant all of us—look whom he invited to the birth. Shepherds filled a critical role in the economy in Israel, but increasingly, their only role in Jewish society was at the bottom; yet they were the first outside witnesses to the birth of the Son of God. Would they have been welcome in the guest room of a respectable house? No; but in the lowest part of the house, where the animals stayed, they belonged. If there was no place for the shepherds in polite society, and if they were to be welcome at Jesus’ birth, there couldn’t be a place for him in polite society, either.
This, I believe, is why the angel tells the shepherds, “This will be a sign for you.” It’s not just about telling them how to find the right baby—there’s a message here. God has come to Earth, love has come to his people, and he came to a place where anyone could come, so that right from the beginning he was God with all of us—no exceptions, no ifs, ands, or buts, end of sentence.
Which is both comforting and discomfiting. On the one hand, it means that I am welcome, you are welcome, to come to him. Nothing that any of us are or have been or have done will make Jesus turn away from us; we cannot be so unworthy as to outweigh his love for us. At the same time, though, it means that he doesn’t cater to our comfort zone, either, nor does he reject those whom we reject. We can’t say to Jesus, “I’ll come to you, but first you have to get away from the animals and move someplace more comfortable—I don’t like the smell, and there’s no place to sit down.” We can’t say, “I’ll come, but only if you get rid of those shepherds. I don’t like being around people like that, and I certainly don’t want to be seen with them.” Jesus came to those who he knew would reject him, and he calls us to follow him shepherds, stable reek and all.