And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7, NRSV)
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. . . . a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ (Luke 10:30-35, NRSV).
Even when I’m not happy with the church, I love the Bible. Part of the reason for that is the language is so much more evocative than indicative; it allows for a lot of interpretative license. In this season of Christmas, probably every children’s pageant (and possibly some “live nativities” where adults play some of the parts) will have an innkeeper telling Mary and Joseph “There is no room for you here.” Or something to that effect. This creates a way for one more person to have a speaking role, but it is not what the biblical text–at least no English text of which I am aware–says. And that is okay. It gives one more person a chance to dress up, and participate in the story. Indeed, I think much of the story parts of the Bible were probably meant for people to join into this way.
There is little of stage-management in the Bible: very few adjectives describe the scene, or the way particular words are delivered. We put that in ourselves, and by doing so, we make the sacred story our own story. There are as many ways of reading the story as there are readers. Some have been more dramatic and compelling. We’ve listened to great storytellers and readers deliver the ancient words, and we’ve chosen those dramatizations as our own. Some are elaborate, like the 2010 BBC drama of the Nativity; others, such as Linus reading the story of Jesus’ birth (granted, not the innkeeper story), are memorable for their simplicity. Which is “right”? Does it matter?
Because the Biblical authors refrained from elaborate description, their stories are fertile ground for imaginative retellings–even if those retellings are completely to ourselves. We can enter into the stories, visualize ourselves as particular characters, question the behaviors and motivations of other personalities. It’s tempting to always take on the role of the obvious hero of the story (okay, most of us wouldn’t put ourselves in Jesus’ place, at least not on a regular basis), but I find myself drawn to the nameless person who doesn’t have much to say (or sometimes, the person whose presence isn’t even acknowledged, but without whom the story would not be possible). And in Luke’s gospel, both the Nativity story and the Good Samaritan involve innkeepers about whom we know next to nothing.
At least in the Good Samaritan story, there is a one-sided conversation with an innkeeper. Promises are made, money is exchanged–but we still know nothing of the innkeeper’s actions. Was s/he trustworthy and caring, as the Samaritan assumed in giving the commission of the victim’s physical and financial care to this person? Was that commission carried out as expected? What happened when the Samaritan cane back that way–was the victim well enough to leave, was a bill settled, was the innkeeper moved to contribute financially to the care of the stranger? How did the innkeeper feel about being burdened with a badly injured transient, and the possibility that the Samaritan might never return? Alternatively, was the innkeeper a part of a scam whereby thieves would attack a traveler, divest him of any valuables, share the take with the innkeeper, and (if they were lucky), get some innocent but rich passer-by to do exactly what the Samaritan did–and split that money, and if the victim died, too bad, so sad.
We assume that the innkeeper did as asked, that the victim recovered, and all was well. But the biblical narrative does not demand or even indicate that assumption.
And we know even less about the innkeeper in Bethlehem–that person does not even appear in the biblical text.
Our Nativity plays depict the innkeeper as the person who tells the heavily pregnant Mary and her fiancé that “there is no room” for them in his (or possibly her) establishment. Luke doesn’t indicate anything of the sort. Did the couple simply hear rumors that there was no room, and decide to find at least rudimentary shelter elsewhere? Was the manger even part of the property of the inn (was it even under any kind of structure)? Did the innkeeper actually offer them the rude accommodation with the animals, or (equally possible) did they simply take whatever they could find? Was it really safe to put a newborn with the animals’ food? What might the innkeeper have said had s/he found out? Did s/he wonder about this strange couple who had their baby in a barn (if something as good as a barn was even available)?
None of this is in the Bible. Every dramatic presentation of the Christmas story embellishes the words of scripture, making it unfaithful to the “literal word of God” (if that is how you view the Bible). Every dramatic presentation of the Christmas story embellishes the words of scripture, igniting our imaginations and enabling us to enter the drama with our hearts, minds and voices–making it supremely faithful to the Word of God (if that is how you view Jesus who is called the Christ).