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So Mary experiences the birth of her first child not only with Joseph to help but surrounded by mothers and midwives. She draws from the wisdom of her relatives as she grips their hands..

artwork "The Good Shepherd" by Sieger Koder

Luke 2:1-20

December 24, 2022

Dr. Todd R. Wright

The 2006 film, The Nativity Story, is one of my favorite retellings of the Christmas tale. I love that it uses actors that look like they could actually have lived in Israel. I love the faithfulness to the gospels and the guesses they make about the backstory. I love the way that when Mary’s labor begins, Joseph’s love is on display as he desperately tries to find her shelter. His search becomes increasingly frantic. He bangs on doors and shifts from asking for a place to stay, to demanding, “Open the door!”, to begging, “Help us!”[1]

There’s just one problem with this depiction – Kenneth Bailey says it’s not entirely true.

Who is Kenneth Bailey to question the story we all grew up on?

Bailey died in 2016, but he was a renowned New Testament scholar who spent 40 years teaching in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus, and an ordained Presbyterian missionary. He is known for “re-reading the Scriptures — and particularly the teachings and parables of Jesus — in their [Middle Eastern] cultural context.”[2]

So what does Bailey want us to reconsider about this story?

Three things:

First, he doubts that Joseph was looking for shelter at the last moment.

Second, he wants to clear up some confusion about the inn mentioned in verse 7.

Third, he wants us to reimagine the welcome the baby and his parents received.


Let’s begin!

The text says, “[Joseph] went to be registered with Mary … While they were there, the time came for her to deliver.” Bailey says, “This naturally means that the last stages of Mary’s pregnancy took place in Bethlehem.” Do we really believe, he asks, that “Joseph [is] so totally inept that after an extended search (a week? two weeks? a month?) he cannot arrange anything?”[3]

It seems unlikely.

If Bailey is right, it takes away some of the narrative tension, but there is more.

Bailey explains that the word translated as “inn” is rendered as “guest room” elsewhere in Luke. If he had meant a commercial establishment, what we imagine when we hear the word “inn”, there is a different word in Greek and the gospel writer would have used it.

A quick word about architecture in that time and place: traditional homes were built as a split level, with a small lower level for the animals at one end. The remaining space, about 80 percent, was a raised terrace on which the family cooked, ate, and lived.

Baily explains: “In such traditional homes, mangers are built into the floor of the raised terrace on which the family lives. If the cow or donkey [gets] hungry at night, it can stand and reach the feed on the floor of the upper family living space.”

In this arrangement, the guest room would have been attached to the end of the single room house or built on the roof. So, what Luke is telling us is that other visiting family members have filled the guest room, but the birth takes place in the living room, the center of the house, surrounded by family and the animals that have been brought in from the courtyard for the night.

Again, if Bailey is right, it changes our picture of the welcome the holy couple received.

Another scholar of the customs of Israel puts it this way: “As long as everyone was under the same roof, it didn’t matter if they were in a private nook or on a straw mat next to the goats. The home is bursting at the seams, but Joseph and Mary are around the table for meals, joining in the conversations among relatives. Modern notions of private spaces had no place in the ancient rubric.

Amid the bustle of family and the logistics of accommodating everyone, Mary’s water breaks. Maybe she is among the women preparing the evening meal, chopping cucumbers or pitting olives, when the cooks transform into midwives. They guide her to [a] corner and make room for her to lie down. [They] huddle around her for the duration of labor. Dinner can wait; the baby might not.

So Mary experiences the birth of her first child not only with Joseph to help but surrounded by mothers and midwives. She draws from the wisdom of her relatives as she grips their hands. She lets out screams that startle the goats and make the donkey, still tired from the long journey, anxious.”[4]


As much as I love the drama of Joseph rushing around Bethlehem trying to find a place for Mary to give birth; and as much as I appreciate all the sermons I’ve heard (and preached) about making room for the Christ child to be born, the details these scholars give us are good news.

They mean that every time we welcome people – into our church, into our homes, into our lives – we aren’t making up for the neighbors in overcrowded Bethlehem, or acting better than some grumpy innkeeper, we are imitating the warm hospitality the holy family received from the start. We join in the spirit of a very different story, a story that echoes our experience – one where we slide over in the pew when a new family arrives, or add a chair when the niece brings her boyfriend to the Thanksgiving feast; or share books when a new retiree shows up at circle; or donate from our own collection of DVDs when we need to fill one more veteran’s bag.

Inspired by this Nativity story, whenever new life enters our world, we welcome it!

That is a Christmas gift! Amen

[1] scene 18 “Finding shelter”, starting at 1:16:00 and ending at 1:18:00
[2] From
[3] From “The manger and the inn: a Middle Eastern view of the birth story of Jesus” by Kenneth E. Bailey in the Presbyterian Outlook, published 12/21/06, updated 12/16/22
[4] From “Mary, Joseph, and a tea vendor named Sami” by Kelley Nikondeha, for Christian Century, 9/27/22
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