“Because there was no room for them in the inn”

Luke 2:7 famously reads: “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.”

The word “inn” conjures in our imaginations a Holiday Inn or Motel 6 with the “no vacancy” sign lit. Our youthful bathrobe-wearing nativity plays invariably take it this way. But that’s an anachronistic perception.

Luke does indeed refer to a public inn for hire (such establishments were usually run by Gentiles) in his story of the Good Samaritan with the word pandocheion. But in the nativity story, he uses a different word: kataluma. This word derives from the verb kataluo, from the preposition kata “down” and luo “to loose.” The primary connotation of the verb is “to destroy” (in the sense of tearing something down), but it also can refer to loosing a burden from a pack animal and bringing it down for the night, and thus “to cease from travel, to rest, to seek lodging.” Kataluma is the nominal cognate of that verb. Luke uses the word elsewhere in the story of the Last Supper, where the guestchamber they observe the meal in is a kataluma.

Elder Nelson has an old speech reprinted in the current Ensign in which he takes the view that the kataluma is a caravansary (a rough shelter for people and animals traveling in caravans). That’s a possible reading. But personally I’m influenced by Luke’s usage elsewhere to see it as the guestroom in a house, which would usually be upstairs. (John Welch published a word study of this word, also in the Ensign, in which he took it as a guest room in a private home; I agree with his take.)

Joseph was returning to “his town.” So presumably he did not knock on a stranger’s door; the house where he sought lodging was likely that of a relative. There was no room in the guestchamber because other relatives had arrived earlier. That much is understandable.

A lot of people stop there. But keep in mind the cultural context; hospitality was everything. And back then, just as today, women in well advanced pregnancy tend to be helped and accommodated. To me it’s almost unthinkable that a relative’s wife arriving from a long journey about to give birth would not be attended to by the women, given space in the upper room away from the others, fawned over and comforted and assisted.

Except–the refusal to give up space for Mary makes sense when we remember another part of the cultural context, that she became pregnant before marriage by someone not her husband. We usually don’t think about this aspect of the story, but if we’re serious about reading it as a real account, we have to consider the scandal that was Mary’s pregnancy (The movie “The Nativity Story” starring a young Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary does a pretty good job of teasing this dynamic out of the narrative.) To my eye, there was no room made available for Mary in the guestroom because Joseph’s relatives were offended and scandalized by her pregnancy. This isn’t an essential reading; you don’t have to go that far. That’s just the way I see it.

And therein perhaps lies a lesson for us today. How often do we refuse to give place to our own prodigals, not only in our homes but in our lives? I’m sure Joseph’s relatives thought they were being righteous by shunning Mary. Do we do the same thing when we do not unconditionally welcome our own children or those with whom they are in relationships into our homes? What if your child were gay? What if he had a partner? Is the righteous response to bar them from the family home? Should we tell them there is no room for them in our kataluma?

My daughter has been in a serious relationship with her boyfriend for several years. They are not married. It is a safe bet that they have sex. Yes, yes, I know, the Church does not approve of sex outside the bounds of marriage. So is the appropriate response to shun them? To keep them from entering our home? To turn a cold shoulder to them? God forbid. My daughter (and her boyfriend) will always be warmly welcomed in our home and in our lives. My love for her is both absolute and unconditional. Joseph’s relatives tried a little passive-aggressive shunning of the young girl who shamelessly showed up to their home pregnant, not by Joseph, and by so doing memorialized their reaction in the pages of scripture. And it was not an admirable action on their part. Let us not follow in their footsteps.

Comments

  1. We’re all prodigals to some degree. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Julie M. Smith says:

    Great post, thank you.

  3. Karmen, you don’t need the “to some degree” qualifier, there. :)

  4. Oh Kevin… thank you.

  5. Beautiful. Let us use this to remember to reinvigorate and realize the importance of our relationships this holiday season.

  6. Kevin, in my short Ensign piece last year “Glad Tidings of Great Joy” and then in this year’s “Good Tidings of Great Joy” (Deseret Book), I made similar arguments about the katalyma, noting “There not being room for a woman in labor in the home of her new in-laws creates a scenario more poignant and more distressing than one of being turned away be strangers” (GTGJ, 72-73). But I did not think to take it the additional step that you did, to postulate WHY Joseph’s family would not be accepting Mary because of the scandal that other had perceived Joseph’s new wife. Well done.

  7. Thank you for this.

  8. Dang, Kevin. Thank you so much for this.

  9. If you cannot tell from my #4, I`ve been writing Christmas cards today…still I would love to see this incorporated in Christmas SS lessons somehow.

  10. This is wonderful. I’ve been in the middle of a blog post about this very thing for a couple days now. It seems so simple to me. Honestly, I really can understand that some people see it as condoning behavior they don’t approve of; I just don’t see how they arrive at the conclusion that letting people know they condemn the behavior is more important than showing love.

  11. It is hard for me to believe, in retrospect, that I had never considered this before today. It is certainly thought-provoking.

    And your daughter is blessed.

  12. “Joseph’s relatives tried a little passive-aggressive shunning of the young girl who shamelessly showed up to their home pregnant, not by Joseph, and by so doing memorialized their reaction in the pages of scripture. And it was not an admirable action on their part. Let us not follow in their footsteps.”

    Kevin: brilliant.

  13. David M. Morris says:

    Thanks Kevin for taking it a step further on the family perspective. It is always nice to learn something new and be happy to admit we did. Thanks again.

  14. Excellent! May I be so bold as to add a few other possibiities:
    1. Following Matthew, Mary is “found with child of the Holy Ghost” (power of the highest in Luke) in Nazareth, begins showing (early stage).
    2. Joseph is awaken by an angel, marries her immediately, and wisks her away from Nazareth down to his ancestral area of Judea, so she is not subject to the ridicule in her village. (end of Matthew pre-birth story).
    3. Following Luke, Joseph escorts his new wife to Jerusalem. She will then live for 3 months with her cousin Elizabeth while he stays nearby in Bethlehem with relatives. The relatives live in a typical 1st century, 3 level Bethlehem home, often dug into a hill, with a lower level for animals to live during the winter months, a living/cooking level, and a sleeping level (the “inn”).
    4. After the stay, she is escorted the short distance to Bethlehem by Joseph, where she gives birth to Jesus in the comfort and security of the upstairs room, attended by a midwife and other female relatives of Joseph. Following the successful birth, they move from the top level of the home to the bottom level because “there was no room for them (to sleep) in the inn”
    This is not a problem because of the mild, mediterranean climate in April and the fact that the area had been vacated by “shepherds abiding in the fields, watching their flocks by night.”

    I know, this is far less romantic than the scene of Joseph, Mary, and the donkey on a stormy December 24th night, having traveled for days, going from inn to inn, and giving birth alone in a stable, with only cows and sheep to watch. But it does take in the following points:

    .Giving birth was possibly the most dangerous thing a woman would do in her life. Joseph’s stewardship would have necessitated him bringing her to a safe place for delivery long before she was due.
    .So many videos show Mary basically traveling by herself from Nazareth to Jerusalem to visit Elizabeth. This is insane and would not have happened. Under this scenario, she is now safe with relatives and Joseph is nearby.
    .I have not brought up the “taxing” because it’s hard to verify and basically is consequential. I am also aware of the other problems historians have with many of the events mentioned. I just like this view of things because it provides for a safe Mary and a responsible Joseph.

  15. “And back then, just as today, women in well advanced pregnancy tend to be helped and accommodated.”

    A short essay only allowed limited detail, but which examples did you have in mind illustrating ancient accomodation of expectant mothers?

  16. Kevin, this is the best Christmas story I’ve read in a long time. Thanks for this.

  17. I think you raise questions for us not just as individuals or families but as a church, as wards of the church. Who will we take in willingly, lovingly, who will we keep out? Very thought provoking.

    Of course, there are those scholars who believe Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem but in Nazareth but who cares about those guys?

  18. It’s an interesting perspective on the Christ story and it really does make a lot of sense. I know I’m missing the mark a bit on what I am going to say, but I would like to address the idea that ‘our lesson for today’ is that we should unconditionally allow our children into our homes and into our lives.

    It is not always ‘self righteousness’ or ‘harsh judgement’ that moves parents to place a boundary between themselves and their child. It is a very painful, heart-wrenching, and necessary consequence of actions that the child has taken. Sometimes allowing a person who hurts you into your life and into your home is not a healthy choice–even if that person is your child. Sometimes ‘prodigals’ are abusive, manipulative, and use you to the point where you have nothing left–emotionally, financially, or spiritually–particularly when they struggle with a chemical dependency or chemical imbalance. Boundaries are necessary to protect your own well-being and send a clear message to your child that you will not tolerate certain behaviors in your life. The prodigal may interpret that as you ‘not loving’ them–when the very painful choice you make has everything to do with your love for them–it’s about your unwillingness to ‘help them’ self destruct or ‘passively accept’ that they are self destructing before your eyes.

    In a ‘prodigal’ relationship, it is the child that returns to the parent. The parent did not chase after his son or alter his standards to accommodate his son’s destructive lifestyle. He did, however, receive him with joy when he was ready to return. In our relationship with Heavenly Father, it is we who return to Him. He does not pour blessings down upon us when we are making poor choices in our life. He does know and understand and love us through those times, but we are unable to receive the type of love He gives when we are mired in the natural consequences of our own poor choices. Until we choose to change the way that we are living, we are unable to receive the love that God so freely gives us. Likewise, a prodigal child who has lost himself to a dependency, can not feel the love of a supportive parent who has determined that him ‘being healthy’ or ‘in recovery’ is a requirement before he will be allowed to set foot in his parents’ lives again.

  19. Powerful post. Thank you.

  20. Wonderful, Kevin.

    I love reading different readings of common scriptural accounts, and this one really resonates with my heart.

    Thank you!

  21. jenn p,

    Although I agree with you, that is not the lesson for today. Kevin Barney in his use of unconditionally was thinking of parents who shun away a perfectly good child simply because of bad choices (like Mary’s in-laws). If Mary was carrying an axe wanting to commit mass murder because she was on a bad acid trip, I’m pretty sure Kevin would agree it’s probably for the best that the in-laws stay away until she goes to rehab and gets decent therapy (which hopefully they’d help her get). When the psyche is affected, a child is no longer ‘perfectly good’, hopefully his examples showed this.

  22. jenn p (no. 17) — Thank you…

    The question posed by the original posting is one that the parents must answer — not the neighbors or home teachers — the parents must make their decision, and then their friends sustain them in their decision. I have come to believe that the proper operation of my agency must include respect for the agency of others. In this context, I will say that Kevin Barney is “right” in choosing to give a room to his daughter and boyfriend — and also he would be “right” if he said no. After all, it is his house and his family. His neighbor has no stewardship there. His bishop doesn’t have any stewardship there, either.

    In my mind, the daughter and boyfriend are already married anyway. They haven’t formalized a marriage contract enforceable by the state, but in my mind they’re already married in the eyes of God.

  23. “My love for (my child) is both absolute and unconditional.” I’ve heard that argument a lot about welcoming the prodigal into our homes and it never sits well with me all that . I don’t remotely agree that absolute, unconditional love means that I should warmly necessarily welcome that person into my home and into my life. I think that a lot of us make bad decisions on the basis of “love” both by being to accepting and too unaccepting of the people we love in our lives.

    I think that jenn p makes a really valid clarifying point that there are situations where it is necessary to completely remove people from our lives even though we still love them. If the safety of myself or the rest of my family is in question, I will do whatever is in my power to protect the rest of my family.

    Als I have a close family member who wouldn’t let his son into their home for a year. I didn’t agree with his reasons, but I understood that from his perspective he was making the best decision he could in the hopes of blessing his son’s life. Guess what, that is not a un-“admirable action” on the part of that parent.

    We don’t know what’s in the mind and heart of that other parent and not everybody has the same definition of “safety” and I’m not willing to judge or condemn a parent (or family member) who wont let their child into their home even if I, or someone else, would in the same circumstance.

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 5, Eric, thanks for the comment. (I’ve started your book and am quite enjoying it, but work has been killing me; I’m hoping to finish it by Christmas Day.)

    No. 14 John, we don’t really have detailed accounts from the Bible itself. We have to extrapolate from surrounding cultures and also from modern near eastern bedouin-type cultures. Here’s how one text described the practice based on these types of sources:

    “The woman giving birth was surrounded by women she knew and trusted – her relatives and friends. The women gathered around her, working in shifts to massage her, support her under the arms or wipe her face and body with damp cloths.She had seen many other women giving birth, so she knew what to expect.”

    This is I think what we would expect.

    On the hospitality side of things, the classic illustration is Lot and the two angels. He was willing to allow his own two daughters to be gang-raped by the mob rather than submit the guests under his roof and protection to similar treatment. That horrifies us today, but that is how strong the imperative of hospitality was among ancient Hebrews. That is why inns for hire were usually operated by Gentiles, as it was against Jewish culture to charge anyone for spending the night in your home and under your care.

    No. 16 James, see this:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2007/12/06/o-little-town-ofnazareth/

    No. 17 jenn, yes, there are serious cases where a boundary must be drawn for the safety and protection of yourselves and others, as in the case of a manipulative drug addict or a pedophile uncle. Drawing those kinds of boundaries in the case of one’s own children must be absolutely wrenching. But I hope LDS parents are not rejecting their children simply because they are in a sexual relationship with a committed partner.

  25. What interesting thoughts. 13 as well.

    it makes so much sense that they would stay with family..middle eastern culture wise and considering they were going to his ancestral home. I have wondered what they were running from as well…what community pressure was there where they lived? I have hoped she would have assistance at the birth…but meddling, judgmental in laws isn’t exactly what I had in mind. I have assumed she didn’t have a long donkey ride late in pregnancy…even if they did travel late, which I doubt, who would choose a donkey ride over walking. Maybe she was past her due date and disparate to induce…nah. I favor 13s version.

    I wonder if some saw their trip to Egypt as convenient revelation to avoid their “punishment”–constant judgemental,

    I Have wondered how much Mary noticed where they were, being distracted by labor in which even a patch of ground can look very appealing. I’ve also wondered if the stable provided a little privacy for a new mother learning to nurse. I would sure hate to be in the upper room surrounded by “helpful” laleche league nazis as I struggled to figure out nursing.

    Under no conditions would I invite a drummer boy to play.

  26. sorry this subject always hits a raw nerve with me, so I had to edit to tone it down, that first paragraph should have read:

    “My love for (my child) is both absolute and unconditional.” I’ve heard that argument a lot about welcoming the prodigal into our homes and it never sits well with me all. I don’t remotely agree that absolute, unconditional love means that I should necessarily warmly welcome that person into my home and into my life. I think that a lot of us make bad decisions on the basis of “love” both by being too accepting and also by being too unaccepting of the people we love in our lives.

  27. “I would like to address the idea that ‘our lesson for today’ is that we should unconditionally allow our children into our homes and into our lives.”

    That lesson isn’t stated anywhere in the OP – but, personally, if I am going to make a mistake in this regard with one of my children in a situation that isn’t obvious, I’d rather it be on the side of acceptance than on the side of rejection. It would be easy to justifiy a decision like is presented in the OP on the grounds that, “I don’t want to appear to approve of Joseph’s decision to marry that slut” – but it would be a terribly wrong justification, based on what we accept about Mary and the actual life of the child she bore.

    Nothing Mary did threatened Joseph’s family in any way except with social shame. If I have to choose between social shame and one of my children, I’ll take the shame every day – and, ironicially, twice on Sunday.

  28. He does not pour blessings down upon us when we are making poor choices in our life. He does know and understand and love us through those times, but we are unable to receive the type of love He gives when we are mired in the natural consequences of our own poor choices.

    I don’t agree. We are all always in the process of making poor choices- every day we all fall short. The invisible sins are just as serious as the swelling belling of an unmarried woman. The mercy of God is that he blesses us despite our failing, not because we deserve anything.

    I’m with Ray- aside from a dangerous situation (and believe me, this is something I know about) I would err on the side of mercy and love and take the public shaming on the chin.

  29. I understand tough love and the concept of keeping the home safe…but I seriously doubt a laboring woman falls in to the very dangerous person category. Were ytrite try to keep your daughters from becoming her, as if that was all up to you, watching a young woman labor would most likely discourage them from following that path…although I admit the whole star, and angels, and shepherds and wise men and gold and stuff…that would have sent a conflicting message.

    I still like the dangerous great with child mother image. Maybe great with child wasn’t meant to indicate incapacitating size, but instead a super power?

  30. From no. 27: “I’m with Ray- aside from a dangerous situation (and believe me, this is something I know about) I would err on the side of mercy and love and take the public shaming on the chin.” The next step after this is to say that if my neighbor made a different decision regarding his or her child under seemingly similar circumstances, I would support my neighbor in that difficult decision.

  31. Trite is apparently what my computer thinks I meant to say when I tried to type were you to try….

    I,ve had my fix now…I can go about my day imagining super Mary action figures.

  32. Is it possible that Mary delivered early, and that Josephs family (and anyone else) didn’t actually know the date of conception was before their marriage? We like to assume that Mary was huge, that everyone of course knew she got pregnant out of wedlock, and that they got help from no one, but could the story have evolved to make it seem more of a hardship than it actually was?

    I’d think Joseph and Mary weren’t the only ones sleeping in the stable, and that, though pregnant, she wasn’t expected to give birth until a time closer to 9 months after their marriage date. Also, births don’t happen automatically at 9 months – gestation can vary by a month either way. We just like rooting for the underdog.

  33. #29 – ji, I agree with that completely – unless I knew, from personal discussion with that neighbor, that he was choosing to reject his child solely out of a desire to avoid social shame. In that case, I simply couldn’t support him in that decision, although I still would continue to love and support him as my friend and neighbor.

    Iow, I wouldn’t ban him from my house (or myself from his house) just because he banned one of his children from his house, even if I disagreed strongly with his decision. That would be hypocritical in the extreme.

  34. “He does not pour blessings down upon us when we are making poor choices in our life.”

    The parable of the lost sheep (the 99 and 1) suggests quite straightforwardly that God expends considerably more effort intervening in the lives of sinners, trying to return them to His fold, than in the lives of the righteous. If that’s not a blessing, I don’t know what is…

  35. “He does not pour blessings down upon us when we are making poor choices in our life.”

    I thank God regularly that this does not represent my own experience with Him. I’ve found in my own life that he’s pouring out the blessings pretty much continually, but there are times when I’m more or less able to recognize and accept them.

  36. “I have wondered what they were running from as well”

    Lessonnumberone: Mary (and her baby) were subject to possible death by stoning under the prevailing interpretation of the Mosaic Law for being perceived as having committed fornication. Joseph greatly reduced that possibility by his initial decision “not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily” and then did away with it completely by marrying her. But the stigma would remain. Since she was probably a young teenager, this would have been especially difficult for her.

    Thank you for liking my thoughts. I think they follow the limited scriptural information that we have fairly close while avoiding the post-scriptural storyline that developed later. I’m particularly sensitive about the concept of Mary’s safety right now since my eldest daughter is due to have her second child tomorrow.

  37. I wanna be Kevin Barney when I grow up.

  38. Larryco..I agree that’s part of what they were leaving, I was more wondering how her family and friends were treating them. The record implies, as you say, that Joseph has to act to save Mary…the community was choosing to dole out the punishment as they saw it. . I Wonder if Joseph had an idea what they were going to or if he assumed that his family, given her need, would make room. It does make it interesting to consider that there was no room for THEM.

  39. Mommie Dearest says:

    Having been on the receiving end of familial shunning there is no way I would ever subject any of my children to such treatment because of their wayward behavior. It doesn’t help them at all, and instead does a lot of damage. I don’t think it necessary to limit (or cut off) contact in order to protect my “safety” or the sanctity of my home, or to send the proper message about what is respectable. I keep any anxious feelings mostly to myself, and hold my tongue, and make them and their associates welcome in my life. From my experience, sinful behavior all by itself inherently creates enough problems that shunning to any degree is unnecessary and misguided, and the Lord doesn’t require us to police each other in this way. Quite the contrary, he wishes to see us model his approach which was one of patient forbearance and love.

    (Of course, I am not addressing a situation where there is a real threat, which isn’t analogous to the perceived situation with which Mary and Joseph presented their relatives.)

    Also, BCC admins are the bomb.

  40. Tracy M, Ray and Brad–I agree that God blesses the sinner but what JennP is expressing is what she sees taught by the Church: namely, that we are blessed when we follow God’s Commendments and not blessed–or even cursed–when we don’t–especially when we commit those “big sins” that take one out of fellowship. We are often told of the vissicitudes that befall those who stray from the Iron Rod, so JennP’s take is perfectly reasonable.

  41. Yes, Martie, it is reasonable – but, expressed as an extreme, it also is wrong.

  42. Oh, and just for the record, we aren’t God – and whether or not we “bless” others who are making poor choices doesn’t depend on God’s decisions regarding those people. There’s this thing about God making his own choices but requiring us not judge and to forgive more broadly than He does. It’s an interesting concept, and we generally screw it up quite badly.

    Also, I know laying down the Jesus card is problematic in many discussions, but I think his life and ministry says something important about the idea that God doesn’t bless those who are making poor choices. (and the wording was “making poor choices”, not “committing horrible sins”)

  43. taught by the Church: namely, that we are blessed when we follow God’s Commendments and not blessed–or even cursed–when we don’t

    Yes, but “blessing” is not an all-or-nothing event. When someone is seriously and consistently violating the Word of Wisdom, the Lord may not bless him with the promise to run and not be weary, to walk and not faint, and the other blessings specifically tied to that obedience. But it doesn’t mean the Lord doesn’t still bless the violator — maybe with superior compassion to help others caught in the same trap, and with people who reach out to help him, and with strength to overcome, and heck, maybe even with blessings that are in no way related to that “poor choice”: musical skill, an open garage when he has a flat tire, and his favorite ice cream going on sale at the store. Saying someone is not blessed or is even cursed for sinning just does not mean that God is withholding ALL blessings — we’re all still blessed, all the time, just not, perhaps, in all the ways the Lord would like to bless us.

  44. Of course, sinning isn’t an all-or-nothing event, either — a shoplifter isn’t necessarily an adulterous, bank-robbing, pusher-of-little-old-ladies-in-front-of-buses. I recognize there are some sins (always other people’s, never our own) where we act as though the sinner in one field is guilty of sin everywhere, but ‘taint so. The Lord still blesses us, constantly.

  45. Jenn, I could perhaps swallow your premise more easily if you changed every “you” in your sentences to “I.”

  46. This was a lovely post.

    Just an FYI, though. Prodigal is not a word that means someone who is wayward or has left and then come back. It means someone who is recklessly extravagant and wasteful – as in the son who squandered his inheritance. So to talk about people out of favor and seeking some mercy it’d be more accurate to use a different word.

  47. I loved this post, Kevin! Thanks for writing it.

  48. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, how heartbreaking it is. And the thing that strikes me now, given the likelihood of your premise, is the kindness extended in the phrase “there was no room for them in the inn.” So much more could have been said but wasn’t. Thanks for writing such a beautiful, thoughtful post.

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