This little illustration was first published in a church magazine in 1984, when I was already sympathizing with fellow-disciples who were also being denigrated for doing their level best to be faithful. I think it is even more needed now, so I am offering it to you as an alternative narrative that just might bear consideration.
I called it “A Word in Defense of the Much-maligned Innkeeper”.
The Christmas season is upon us again, and with it the usual deluge of abuse, printed and preached, for the defenseless “villain” of the story, the innkeeper who sent Mary and Joseph to the stable, “because there was no room for them in the inn.” That is all that Luke says: yet from those few words, for some perverse reason, people have conjured-up the image of a heartless, unfeeling man, who had no sympathy at all for the lowly folks on his doorstep.
I wish I could have invited you to our home years ago, on Christmas Eve. You just might leave with a different view of the innkeeper. In fact, I am heretical enough to suggest that the innkeeper might have done for the expectant parents the very kindest thing in his power.
When we lived in the country, we enjoyed the delight of having a few animals. They included, at various times, sheep, goats, and a cow, as well as the ubiquitous dogs and cats. On our first Christmas there, one of the kids got the idea, “Why don’t we have our Christmas worship down in the barn with the animals?” Sort of the “authentic real thing?” We invited a few friends, and all were so impressed that this became an annual tradition.
All of our animals were pets, to the great amusement of the neighbors who were “real” farmers. Very likely, our relationship with our animals was more like what you would have seen in the rural Middle East of the first century, where people lived very close to their creatures, (even sometimes in the same house!) – than to the situation of those neighbors, for whom their animals had only commercial value. Our barn was sheltered, and surprisingly warm, in spite of being cheaply built of salvaged materials. The straw and hay was clean-smelling and cozy. The sheep, especially, were friendly and curious. One would often come and lie down with her head in my lap, sharing the warmth of her beautiful thick wool.
There would be a lot of worse places to have a baby! Starting with a smelly, crowded, vermin-infested inn! Remember, it was not a Holiday Inn that turned away the wandering couple. Inns of that day consisted of one large common room, shared by all, with no privacy and negligible sanitation. Give me a clean, quiet barn any day! I would much prefer friendly sheep as birth attendants, to a horde of stinking, swearing mule-drivers snarling their displeasure at being forced to register for yet another oppressive Roman tax!
The only people who think of a barn as a dirty, uninviting place are those who have never been around people who cared for their animals. Surely, for rural people accustomed to living with their flocks, the stable would have been the most comforting place imaginable, if they were denied the privilege of staying in their own home!
As we read the Christmas story, and the earlier prophecies, and gave thanks for the Lord who did not scorn to identify with humble folk, a very different scenario suggested itself:
A simple couple arriving at the door of an inn, tired from their journey, and somewhat frightened at the impending birth, is greeted by a kindly old grandpa-type and his wife. Hardened by the harshness of many of their customers, the sight of the soon-to-be-parents awakens a compassion that they had almost forgotten. “The inn is crowded – see for yourselves! This is no place to have a baby! You need quiet and rest. We ourselves have only a corner off the kitchen. But if you wish, out back here, there is a quiet spot…”
Throwing down some clean straw, and shooing the occupants out of one stall, they lead the young parents out of the noise and shoving, and into peace…..
Thanks be to God!