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As the opening act of the Greatest Story Ever Told, each character mentioned in the Christmas narrative has had a number of literary traditions and homiletical assumptions added that may or may not be directly traceable to the text of the Holy Bible. One of these is none other than the Innkeeper.
When we are confronted with the dichotomy of the Second Person of the divine Godhead, enthroned in Heaven throughout all previous eternity, being born into a filthy barn with the stench of feces and urine all around, knowing this account not from the standpoint of the characters within but rather as the beneficiaries of the complete Good News of the Gospel message, we are horrified on an instinctive level and look for someone to blame for this apparent breech of cosmic protocol. Often, the Innkeeper is thrust into the role.
But is such an outrage warranted? Though literature and tradition can be useful tools of instruction, enlightenment, and illumination if they are kept in check by the foundation provided by the Word of God, it is to the Word of God that the investigation must turn if we are to distinguish undisputed fact from what may turn out to be nothing but well-intended imagination.
The text reads in Luke 2:7, “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” With that passage, one has exhausted the corpus of Biblical references regarding the Advent Inn though definitely not the speculation or debate surrounding the figure that no doubt tended this mentioned structure.
Technically, there isn’t even an innkeeper directly mentioned. One can conclude that the expansion of the role that he played in interpretations of the Christmas Story is more about giving pageant parts to kids who, to put it bluntly, don’t quite measure up to the charisma of those selected to play Joseph and Mary but who are a cut above those selected to play shepherds and animals in terms of intelligence.
The Innkeeper also becomes a foil through which assorted ministers, church music directors, and aspiring ecclesiastical playwrites make assorted points that these respective thinkers feel either need to be made but are not explicitly spelled out in the portion of Scripture under consideration or even placed as hints to draw applause to their own vaunted sense of holiness or spirituality.
The first misconception construed about the Holy Family and tossed at the Innkeeper is that these wanderers were homeless and that this particular businessman typifies the attitudes exuded by commercial interests towards the destitute. This line of reasoning was popularized years ago by Jesse Jackson and is no doubt widespread today as assorted charities often capitalize on these kinds of sentiments prevalent this time of year in order to shame the general population into complying with solicitations for donations.
Racemongers such as Jackson constantly hold their ears to the rails of the public discussion ready to pounce on any thinker daring to make the error that all within a protected demographic happen to partake of a certain characteristic not inherent to what makes an individual part of the particular group in question. Then why isn’t this same care of thought applied to those finding no roof over their heads?
As Rush Limbaugh astutely rejoineded at the time, Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to pay their taxes. Thus, their state of lacking a domicile was merely a transient one. Technically, they were no more homeless than someone going to the beach and finding nothing but “No Vacancy” signs lit along the boardwalk.
The dilemma faced by the Holy Family in no way justified the increased social spending Jackson was calling for at the time nor infuse the most debauched among indigents, unwilling to lift their own fingers in the effort to elevate their status, with a sacredness or purity with which they should not be esteemed. Unlike Mary and Joseph, many of the homeless end up in this lamentable condition because of their willful refusal to pay their bills rather than because of an eager compliance in seeing that their obligations are met.
A related criticism of the Innkeeper accuses the Innkeeper of being insufficiently religious or spiritual. Those out to find fault with him will respond, “He should have been able to find room for the birth of the Messiah by either kicking out another paying customer or by giving up his own bed.”
This suggestion makes a number of assumptions that cannot necessarily be supported one way or the other from the text as it was inspired by the moving of the Holy Spirit.
For example, no where in the Gospel account is the Innkeeper explicitly portrayed. Mary and Joseph may have learned by other means than directly from the proprietor’s mouth that the inn was full and they wandered about the town looking for an alternative place to stay until the blessed event transpired and there was no where else where they could get off the street.
If sufficiently secluded and in dire enough of an emergency, Mary and Joseph might have dashed into the nearest stable without even notifying the owner or caretaker. The manger in question might not have even belonged to the innkeeper.
Even if Mary and Joseph interacted directly with the Innkeeper, there is no proof that the couple even told the Innkeeper of their unique plight. As difficult as it may be to remember, the Nativity took place in pre-Internet times when pregnant women didn’t go around posting pictures of their bare bellies with stretch marks and protruding navals for all the world to see.
Joseph was initially of the mind to hide Mary away privately all together away from public view in Matthew 2:19 and Mary’s cousin Elizabeth went into seclusion for five months following the conception of John the Baptist according to Luke 1:24. As such, if the Innkeeper even met Mary and Joseph, he might not have even known that she was pregnant if the couple went to extraordinary measures to conceal that she was with child.
Since, according to tradition, the Innkeeper placed Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus in a livestock sty, the Innkeeper must not have been an overtly devout individual if that is the way he treated the Messiah and the human vessel through which the Son of God entered the mortal realm in human flesh. But even if Mary and Joseph pulled rank (something they would not have likely done given what we are told in regards to their character), why should the Innkeeper have believed them at the time?
To pious ears, that may sound shocking. However, it must be remembered that at that point in history, Mary and Joseph were no more renowned than any other Israelite.
Before going into the stable, Jesus hadn’t even been born. Mary knew that a miracle had occurred within her. However, even Joseph was disinclined to believe his espoused’s account until he was persuaded otherwise by no less than the intervention of God Himself.
As an Israelite, the Innkeeper could have been aware of prophecies that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. However, short of a detailed anatomical examination or divine encounter of his own, how would he have known Mary was telling the truth or simply pulling his leg to swindle something out of him as religious charlatans have been known to do throughout history. If we are going to add extraneous details to the Christmas story, perhaps we might as well applaud this willingness to assist while keeping the potentially deceptive that we can’t verify at arms length.
Living 2000 years after the events chronicled in the Gospel accounts, we are privileged to know from beginning to the end this particular portion of the Story of Stories. There is more than enough to meditate and ponder upon in those pages without having to drag through the mud the character of a character that what is known of is little more than historical conjecture and literary speculation.
by Frederick Meekins