Every self-respecting children’s nativity play has Mary and Joseph greeted by the gruff Innkeeper who rudely tells Mary and Joseph that there’s no room and then, for good effect, slams the door in their faces. What was the motivation of this heartless hotel manager? Why didn’t he find a place for this pregnant woman? Today we met the second villain of Christmas: the Innkeeper.
The biblical story isn’t nearly as clear as to the backstory of this Innkeeper. There is a just a fleeting reference to the incident and that reference only occurs after Jesus’ birth. Luke tells us simply, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”[i]
Unlike last week’s obvious villain: Herod, the Innkeeper is a little trickier to decipher. In the ambiguity, though, we find ourselves and the reality that Christmas reveals in us the sneaky villain of a lack of prioritization. Surely the Innkeeper should have been able to find a place for Mary and her child.
Let’s first briefly consider who this Innkeeper might have been and why he didn’t have room for Mary and Joseph. Our minds immediately think of the Innkeeper in modern terms—like a hotel manager. While there were instances of a rudimentary form of the modern hotel (with the first floor housing animals and the second floor housing guests[ii]) in urban areas in the ancient world, it is highly unlikely that this sort of inn existed in tiny, ancient Bethlehem. Bethlehem, a town of under a thousand, would have been an unlikely spot for such an inn.[iii] More likely is the assumption of most commentators that the inn referenced in Luke 2 would have been the house of a relative of Joseph.[iv] With the census being called by Caesar, the town would have had quite a bit of extended family pouring in from out of town and in a culture as highly hospitable as the Ancient Near East, it would have been the responsibility and privilege even of extended family members to welcome into their homes.
Why, then, were Mary and Joseph turned away? The simplest explanation is that the home of the closest relative of Joseph in Bethlehem was full—other relatives had gotten there first and the relative likely thought it rude to expel someone from his home to make room for the young couple. Another explanation is that perhaps the spot was reserved for older relatives, who would have had the cultural priority. Maybe it was a lack of courage of the homeowner to displace someone else. Or perhaps, the decision was made to avoid shame by letting a woman pregnant out of wedlock into his home.
We don’t know the reasons for the decision by the Innkeeper, whether it was an unintentional slight or a slight with more malicious intent. I might be reading into the brief mention too much, but I believe that, even if the slight was unintentional, Mary received it as intentional to some degree. Luke, after all, received the primary testimony about the birth and early years of Jesus from Mary and, all of those years later, she still remembered that detail. Perhaps she still felt its sting.
Whether intentional or not, the Innkeeper is still a threat to Christmas. Surely, if he knew what would happen, the Innkeeper would regret his decision. Who wouldn’t regret not making room for a mother who would give birth in the elements? Who wouldn’t regret not making room for the very Son of God?
And yet, is this not the story of so much of our lives? Is not the Innkeeper alive and well in all of us? Is it not absurdly difficult to prioritize space in our lives to commune with the very Creator of the Universe and Savior of our souls? How can that be? But the urgent presses in at every side and we find ourselves, who have access to the very throne room of God and hold onto the very words of God, just too busy.
The Innkeeper is no stranger to me. And my hunch is that he is no stranger to you.
[i] Luke 2:7
[ii] Darrell Bock, Baker Exegetical Commentary, p. 208.
[iii] RT France, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Matthew.
[iv] It also could have possibly been a public shelter, but that doesn’t change the questions that remain as to why Mary and Joseph weren’t given preference (Darrell Bock, Baker Exegetical Commentary, p. 208; Leon Morris; Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, p. 92).