Christmas in October: A rude innkeeper or gracious hosts?
In the interest of transparency, this blog should begin with a confession: I have never been a big Christmas person. I do love the family and friends atmosphere that often comes with the season, but the endless “buy, buy, buy” drives me a bit nuts. And the church Christmas plays, pageants, and concerts had begun to bore me by the time I can remember anything at all. Even receiving Christmas presents was never a big deal for me. (Barbara Linder of NCF has redeemed Advent for me through the years, through her incredibly meaningful Advent worship services, but I don’t associate that with my history of Christmases.) So, maybe I am a curmudgeon of sorts.
On the other hand, the more I have learned about God, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and about 1st century Jewish culture, the more I have appreciated the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. But that appreciation has also made me more frustrated than ever with the typical way Jesus’ birth is presented to the world by us Christians. My plan for the next few blogs, as an extension of our fall teaching series on Luke, is to think out loud about some of the biblical emphases we might do well to pay attention to.
As I was recently reading Kenneth Bailey’s “Jesus: Through Mediterranean Eyes,” I was reminded of something that had deeply touched me in 2003 when I was teaching a course in the Gospel of Luke for the local Urbana Theological Seminary. Beginning more than 100 years ago, scholars have known that the “innkeeper” story in our plays and sermons is almost certainly based upon a mistaken understanding of the Luke 2 text. The text has no word for “innkeeper,” and the Greek word kataluma was not Luke’s word for “inn.” Kataluma was a word meaning “guest room,” as Alfred Plummer in the19th century, I. Howard Marshall in the 20th century, and Joel Green in the 21st century all pointed out in their Luke commentaries.
As Bailey says, and as a recent article on Middle Eastern home styles in the Biblical Archeological Review corroborates, modest Middle Eastern homes were built with pretty much the same layout for thousands of years. For families that could afford it, this layout included a special guest room in addition to the relatively small family living space. In 1 Kings 17:9, we are told of a family that dedicated their special guest room to the visits of the prophet Elijah. When Luke in 10:34 wants to tell us about what we would associate with as an inn, he uses an entirely different word to describe the place to which the Samaritan brought the badly injured Jewish traveler.
Luke’s narrative about the birth of Jesus seems to be trying to tell us that a very hospitable family in Bethlehem had already allowed someone to occupy their special guest room. Now, in order to not be shamed by being inhospitable to a very pregnant woman who may deliver sometimes soon, they invite Joseph and Mary to share their family living space until the baby is born and the parents can then make other arrangements for their stay in Bethlehem. (We’ll look at the “stable” and “manger” part of the picture in a future blog as well as the question of how close Mary was to delivery time.)
So, we have no indication that anyone turned away Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem—certainly not these folks. We do have strong indications that some homeowner family with modest means took in two sets of guests—one in their guest room and then a second into their own living quarters.
Perhaps we could adjust our pageants and sermons to the text, and instead of saying “Don’t be like the greedy, too busy, inhospitable (non-existent) ‘Innkeeper’,” we could challenge ourselves to “Be like this unknown and unnamed home owning family who, by taking in a pregnant couple in need of a place to stay, were totally unaware that they were becoming a part of God’s great Jesus Story. How often unknown and unnamed people further God’s great story just by being hospitable and caring!” I would love to see (dare I say “be challenged to live”) that Christmas play!
As always, if you have any questions or thoughts about this post, or if there is another topic you’d like me to explore in a future post, please leave a comment. I always enjoy your questions and thoughts.