In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and hae come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:1-2, NRSV)
Once again, the very scant descriptions in the Bible give rise to speculation on how the story might have happened. Somehow, we’ve decided that there were three wise men, that they were “kings”, and they came on camels. We have some idea that in addition to wisdom, they also possessed some degree of wealth, because the gifts they brought to the baby Jesus–gold, frankincense, and myrrh–were costly offerings fit for a noble child. We’ve also decided that each of the “three kings” gave only one of the gifts, although there is not a lot of reason to make this assumption.
What we do know, or can reasonably surmise, is that whatever the number or political responsibilities of the wise men (apart from the wealth that would enable them to give such expensive gifts), they traveled from a great distance to pay homage to Jesus, and that they intended to return to their homes once this act had been completed.
And that required some form of accommodation for each night of travel. After all, if you’re wealthy enough to leave everything on short notice, with a camel-load of expensive gifts, and go on a road trip to pay your respects to the infant king of another nation, you aren’t likely to pitch a tent on the side of the road each night. So, if we can assume three wise kings on camels, we can (and probably more reasonably) assume that they knew of a reliable sequence of inns along their route.
Biblical innkeeping, at least in the New Testament, is a nearly-anonymous occupation. However, if the innkeeper has been in business for any length of time, one can guess that s/he has kept a safe, reasonably clean, comfortable establishment which provided accommodation at a price travelers on a given route were willing to pay. They didn’t expect (and weren’t set up for) guests to stay for an extended time, with only enough staff to keep the business running. They provided what was needed in terms of food, lodging, animal care, and security. Possibly, the most successful innkeepers were also those who were discreet, not discussing their guests’ business with other guests or people in their communities (except, perhaps to warn other business people that a particular guest wasn’t good for their bill). Yet, they were able to balance discretion with the ability to make introductions and facilitate conversations between guests that could be of benefit to all parties. Travelers might stay at the same inn each time they were passing along a particular route, develop a relationship with the proprietor and his/her family or staff, be happy to see other travelers (some of whom may be familar, and others who might not). But a reliable inn would, I imagine, have been both a blessing and a lucrative business. The focus would be on the guests–not on the staff, not on the innkeeper.
Perhaps the 21st century church needs to be more of an innkeeping church.
What would that look like?
It would probably mean smaller congregations–just enough people to keep things going. We would welcome people who only appeared sporadically, rather than try to find ways to incorporate every newcomer or visitor into the congregation. It would mean that the innkeeper (ordained minister?) would be more a facilitator of relationships that the current model of “spiritual leader” or (ick) the executive director of a small, (usually) cash-strapped and struggling nonprofit.
It would mean more conviviality, with the innkeeper-minister looking out for the wellbeing and comfort of the guests–not being the star of the show. It would treat the guests as the main attraction, the reason that the innkeeping church exists, and expect that the guests would have a lot to say to each other that would be mutually beneficial. It would mean that those visiting would be expected to leave, to tell others about the inn-church, come again, but never to make it their permanent home (I’m not sure that “church home” is a Biblical concept, anyway). Guests would willingly compensate the innkeeping church for its help and hospitality, and the innkeeping church would wish them well on their way, and be ready to welcome them back the next time they passed through.
Certainly, the wise men–whatever their number–must have been interesting to the guests at the inns at which they stayed on their journey to Bethlehem. Those who visit churches sporadically might also be interesting to those places where they stop for rest and refreshment. We haven’t been too good at recognizing that.
The inns along the way made it possible for wise men to visit the holy family and to do homage to the newborn King of the Jews. At their journey’s end, it was time for those wise men to do their work of interpreting the meaning of this wondrous birth, and telling people far and wide about this exceptional child.
Perhaps it is time to have a church that is more innkeeper than settled congregation.