Monday, December 22, 2014

Inns, Stables, Upper Rooms, and the Holy Family

My article for this week's newspapers answers a question about the details of the stories of Jesus' birth:

Q:  How accurate is the Christmas story that we hear read and see performed in churches around this time of year?  Does the Bible say anything else about the events of Jesus’ birth? 

The Bible offers a surprisingly small amount of information regarding Jesus’ birth, preferring to devote more attention to the crucifixion and resurrection than to the birth stories.  Mark simply quotes three Old Testament prophesies, then moves directly to talking about Jesus as an adult.  Rather than telling a birth story, John provides a chapter-long theological discourse about the fact that Jesus is True God in human flesh. 

Matthew provides some information on the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ conception, along with telling the story of the Three Wise Men (which, contrary to popular art, probably occurred well after Jesus’ birth) and the family’s escape to Egypt to flee from murderous King Herod, but he only casually mentions Jesus actual birth in less than a half-sentence.

Luke’s Gospel stands out in its detailed description regarding the events of Jesus’ birth, and thus, is the source for our well-known version of the Christmas story.  It also stands out for its reliability, because, while we honor all of the Bible as accurate and true, we can have a particularly high degree of confidence in Luke’s historical account, because he would have obtained it by interviewing Mary herself – as he mentions when he lays out his method of collecting the historical facts in the first verses of His Gospel.

However, much like when a book is made into a movie, things often become distorted; our perception of the birth story often tends to differ from the version actually authored by St. Luke. 

An excellent example of this is the way we often think of the “inn” in Luke’s story, as we imagine an inn-keeper (a common Christmas pageant character who isn’t actually mentioned in the story) stoically turning away Jesus’ mother and Joseph because there was no place to stay.  Instead, though, the “inn” mentioned in English translations of the story is not what we would think of.  Instead of an establishment that commercially rents rooms to several travelers, the word Luke records indicates the second-story guestroom of a private home – the same sort of room Jesus would use later in life when He gathered with His disciples for the Passover the night before He was crucified. 

Similarly, the place where Jesus was born was not a barn, stable, or cave as popular imagination would suggest.  Instead, homes in that part of the world at that point in history were typically composed of 3 rooms – the main room where the family would cook, eat, and spend the night, the guest room mentioned previously, and a third room, often a half-story lower than the rest that would be used for living space during the day and a shelter for the family’s animals during the night.  Because the guestroom was already taken, this unnamed family would have tied up the animals outdoors and allowed Mary and Joseph to lodge in this room, where Jesus would be born, and the manger that is mentioned would be a ledge dug out between the home’s main room and the lower room where Mary and Joseph would have been staying.

It is highly unlikely that the real events included an overwhelmed Joseph alone with his wife in inadequate shelter as she goes into labor promptly upon arriving in town.  Instead, from what we know of the customs of the time and Luke’s text, Joseph and Mary probably arrived as much as two weeks prior to Jesus birth, found lodging with a relative of Joseph or another citizen who was willing to treat Joseph well because of his royal heritage as a direct descendant of David, and the women of the household and their neighbors – common people like the Luke’s shepherds and their wives - likely assisted Mary with Jesus’ birth. 

Those shepherds would come back from the fields to worship Jesus at the angels’ invitation, Jesus would have been circumcised on his 8th day of life, and they would then travel to the temple for His presentation and Mary’s purification from childbirth when He was 40 days old before returning home to Nazareth. 

Information in this article was summarized from the interview with Ken Bailey found at:

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Love the Sinners; Hate the Pharisees? - 4 thoughts on responding to departures from Scriptural sexuality

For this week's newspapers, I responded to a question about Christian responses to those whose behavior is not consistent with the Lord's creation regarding gender and sexuality:

Q:  How should Christians respond when they are confronted with demands and behaviors that are in conflict with their Scripturally-informed convictions on marriage, sexuality, or gender identity?

It seems that a false dichotomy exists regarding how Christians should interact with people whose behaviors do not match up with their standards or who advocate for causes with which they disagree. 

One stereotypical response is represented by those who surrender the question and modify their articulation of morality to accommodate the standards of the time and place in which they live, while the opposite stereotyped response is to be committed to defense of a historic Christian positions, but do so in a manner that is argumentative and inflammatory. 

Ultimately, neither of these responses is helpful, because both extremes avoid the question rather than engaging it with the honest inquiry it deserves.  One response merely concedes the question to the surrounding world while neglecting the possibility that divine commands could differ, while the other prefers isolation and vocal opposition over genuine interaction with people who are different and who might be in need of compassionate support. 

Some might respond that the middle ground is “Hate the sin; love the sinner,” but besides being a quote from Gandhi rather than a Christian proverb, it is still too simplistic to handle such deeply-felt and potentially sensitive questions.  I am convinced that a genuine Christian response to these sort of questions is both less polarized and more thoughtful than any of the above. 

The first principle that Christians must remember when engaging those with whom they differ in these issues is that they are dealing with people – real humans with whom we share a Creator.  Even though there are times when it may be necessary to act in defense of children or the innocent, and even though Christians must stop short of becoming accessories to immorality, it can be far too easy to diminish opponents into rivals with whom we must do battle rather than real people who face equivalent – although different – spiritual struggles, and deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion. 

Second, it is necessary to distinguish between fellow Christians in need of correction and people outside of the Church whose behavior is not within our sphere of concern.  When Paul deals with an issue of an illicit relationship in 1 Corinthians 5, he clearly articulates to the Corinthians that while they must admonish and correct their erring brother, that they are not to exercise the same judgment outside of the Church or ostracize sinners in daily, secular life. 

For too long though, American Christians have expected non-Christian neighbors to clean up their act before Jesus will receive them, when the reality is precisely the opposite.  We may live more righteously because our Lord forgives us, but we could never be forgiven based on how righteously we might live. 

Third, respectable defense of Christian morality requires a distinction between Biblical command and culturally-conditioned customs.  Matters of style, preferences in recreation, and other auxiliary details are not equivalent to divinely-established callings.  Because a person does not conform to the expectations and appearances that tradition or local culture dictate does not mean that they are in sin.  Instead, a great deal of diversity in such details is still possible while remaining faithful to Biblical commands regarding these issues. 

Finally, the outcomes of national politics, the victory or defeat of a particular party, or even how well national laws reflect Biblical ones is not determinative of Christianity’s health and vitality.  While it might be expedient for legislation to confirm one’s church’s ideals, the church does not stand or fall based on acts of congress or the decisions of the judiciary.  In fact, Christianity has typically seen its greatest advances when it is surrounded by a culture and government which are a contrast to it rather than which confirm it. 

So Christians live in the hope that their Savior has taken their place in life and death and sealed His promises with resurrected victory, so that regardless of the culture that surrounds His Church or the behavior of its neighbors, their role while they wait for His return is not merely to make the world a more moral place, but to both boldly proclaim and compassionately apply His reconciliation to a world in need.