Sunday, December 27, 2009

Not Enough Money for the Inn?

At the midnight Christmas Eve service at ECOOS, all appearances indicated a traditional service. Following the service, I asked three people, two lay visitors and one retired clergyman, if they heard anything out of the ordinary in the sermon. Surprisingly I got three different answers, but nobody picked up on the novelty that I heard. At one point in the sermon, our rector said that Jesus was born in a stable because Joseph and Mary were "too poor" to afford a room in "the motel."

We had just heard Luke 2:4-7 as the Gospel reading that night,
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 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 room for them in the inn.

The Gospel of Luke is the only one with the story of the Inn, and in it the "No Vacancy" sign was lit when Joseph and Mary showed up. This makes sense if there were a lot of people going to their home towns for the census decreed by Caesar Augustus.

I can't say that I had ever heard our rector's version of Luke 2. So where does the "too poor" to afford a room idea come from? This appears to me to be a natural progression from the "homeless couple" theology we have heard promulgated in recent years. It just needed a little tweaking to be more topical for our current state of high unemployment. All of us are aware of the "focus on homelessness" over the past few years, and other preachers have tried to draw a parallel between Jesus' birth and the modern American homeless. One reference at the indicated that
"Jesse Jackson was the first to turn Joseph and Mary into a “homeless couple” when he claimed that Christmas 'is not about Santa Claus and ‘Jingle Bells’ and fruit cake and eggnog,' of which all Christians would agree, but about 'a homeless couple.'[1] He repeated his 'homeless couple' theme at the 1992 Democratic Convention" ([1] As reported in The Atlanta Journal/Constitution (December 28, 1991), A9.) " 2006, Jesse Jackson got it right: 'The story of Christmas is about a couple—Mary and Joseph—forced by an oppressive imperial government to leave their home to travel far to be counted in the census.'" [6]

Unfortunately, the Rev. Jackson came back to the homeless couple theme again in an article in January 2008 in Houston Style magazine
"...economic distress doesn’t put Christmas under wraps. It only highlights the real story. Christmas isn’t about cards or toys or running up credit-card bills to buy presents. The real story is about a homeless couple, immigrants ordered by the government to return home to be counted."

The sharp eyed can see that the Rev. Jackson introduces another current issue, that of immigration, into the discussion. That led me to look for some illegal immigrant Christmas postings on the web. I found one at Dec. 11,2009 where Rosa Ramirez reports:
"La Posarela, a bilingual musical play, re-enacts the biblical journey of a young couple who traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of a place to sleep with their first-born child Jesus.

But as told in the 45-minute play, free at 7 p.m. on Dec. 11 and Dec. 12 at the Community Music Center, the themes of homelessness, undocumented immigration and health care come to the fore.

'Ay, José. Maybe, after all, this city will continue to be a sanctuary city for illegal pilgrims like us,' Ana Ortiz, who plays Mary, tells Joseph.

Rooted in the Mexican tradition of the bible narrative, La Posarela tells the story of Mary and Joseph going from inn to inn looking for shelter. Each time, they are turned away.

The search symbolizes today’s social perils — in the Mission District and across the country — of trying to find shelter and undocumented immigrants trying to belong, said Chus Alonso, the play’s music director."

Now, one can argue that later during their flight to Egypt, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were in a way homeless, although the modern description might be "political refugees," but that is another story.

The story in Luke 2:4-7 about the birth of Jesus is not about a poor homeless couple. It is about God becoming incarnate for us. Yes, the nativity was in very humble circumstances, but even then, it was recognized as something very, very special. The message that God came for us in this way should not be hijacked and revised into a political statement for whatever cause du jour that some high minded modern is wanting to promote. Unfortunately, revisionism such as this has become so acceptable that most people don't even notice anymore. Or as a couple of elderly anchors of the congregation told me this morning as to why they are hanging on, "We just overlook a lot of things."

I wonder if revisionists just wear attitudes and beliefs down to the point where you finally realize that there is no hope in debate or discussion, and you turn a blind ear to whatever the revisionist says. That is why newcomers are often shocked at hearing a revisionist's sermon, and are amazed that old timers shrug and ignore even the most ridiculous novelties coming from the pulpit.

At today's service at ECOOS, there was no sermon, just carol singing. The only hints of revisionism was the rewritten "Good Christian Men Rejoice" which has become, "Good Christian Friends Rejoice."

Shrug and overlook it?


  1. Good work on this post. I have been noticing that and wondering about it.

    I was at a Christmas Eve family service where the book The Christmas Candle was read. It was relating Christ and homelessness in the sense of seeing the image of God in everyone, but not confusing the Christmas story in the way you show here.

    It does occur to me the illegal immigrant/ refugee motif works better when related to the fleeing to Egypt part of the story.

  2. Politicizing scripture? It's only bad if someone is talking about "sin," "judgment" or atonement. But if you want to use Christ to further a redistributive agenda, then let 'er rip!


  3. Some scholarship says that a better translation would be that the couple went to the house of a relative, but there were so many other relatives there already they had to stay in the room where the animals were kept, which would have been in the back of the house and not a separate enclousure.

    As to being "too poor" to afford a room I don't think is supported by the text, although some of it might come from the presentation in the Temple where Mary & Joseph offer 2 turtledoves (Luke 2:24), the "poor folks" offering

  4. Thanks Robert,

    Clearly, the Gospel story indicates the Jesus was of humble birth, and the further we speculate, the more we stray from the message. If the "too poor to pay for a motel room" speculation came from Luke 2:24, it would have been helpful to have brought that out.

  5. By "some of it might come from the presentation in the Temple" I meant your homilist's exegesis, not mine - as I said I don't think the text would support such a notion. I think you are correct - the main point being humble beginnings - maybe even sub-humble, although I wouldn't neccesarily include "poor" in that - after all, they could afford all those "road trips" :-)

  6. Not that I'm anybody, but I concur with the "humble" part of Christ's beginnings and life. Actually, it is necessary in order to demonstrate the nature of the sacrifice require to set the Universe right again after Man's will disobedience brought Sin into it and messed it all up.