On the night of Jesus’s birth, there was no room in the…
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve heard this story so many times that I’m missing the beauty of it this time of year. Christian churches over the last hundred years have created serene sets with nicely behaved animals and card companies put Hallmarkesque images of an event that few of us would hardly recognize had we actually been there that nerve-racking evening when the young couple arrived into the town of their ancestral beginnings.
I’m not sure I would recognize the scene as much as I’ve read about it in the Scriptures and seen yearly reenactments since my childhood. Maybe you can relate.
But if we could revisit the actual scene, what would we do had we been there?
Would we sense Mary and Joseph’s concern for a healthy birth as they pondered the possibility of raising a child whom they were told would save their people? Would we celebrate with holy awe when the angelic visitors told the shepherds they’d find “a babe wrapped up and lying in a feeding-trough?” Would we bring expensive gifts like the magi from the east and bow down in worship? Would we feel the sting of the young couple’s fear and uncertainty for (after having given birth) were warned they should leave town because of the rage of a tyrant who was threatened by a mere child?
There are historical reasons that suggest the house they sought refuge in during the closing stages of her pregnancy was on the bottom level of a common two story Jewish house, the place the animals normally stayed (which explains the feeding-trough).
Although the guests normally stayed upstairs, there was a chance they weren’t the only family staying on the first level with the new couple. Since there were likely numerous families traveling back to Bethlehem for the census, every house that could receive guests was likely full to the brim. This would also mean Mary’s delivery would have been experienced by the other guests and the owner of the house.
The power monger
I’ve been thinking a bit about why Herod the Great would have been threatened by Jesus. Herod was known to be a strong military leader who had set up a name for himself around thirty years prior to Jesus’s birth. Rome’s newest Caesar decided to make him King of Judea and kept good care of him as long as they got their tax money sent in to Rome.
Herod the Great was known not only for being a strong military leader but also for his fits of rage. He became increasingly suspicious of some of his own family members and had them killed including his wife. It’s not hard to understand then the rage we read about in the Jesus story of Matthew chapter 2. But what about Jesus threatened him?
He was a baby.
For one, Herod the Great’s Temple rebuilding project was not simply an act of caring for the ancient Jewish traditions, but was more than likely a way to prove to Israel (or make Israel think) that he (Herod) was their long awaited Messiah.
Secondly, a baby who others were claiming might instead be Messiah posed a definite threat to Herod’s reign. Herod the Great, afraid that possibility would become a reality, took action.
Like all kings (or presidents), ancient or modern, when you feel your power and position is being threatened, you get rid of the threat as soon as possible. You cover it up. Or eliminate it. That’s exactly what he did when he ordered the murder of hundreds (if not thousands) of babies in Bethlehem and nearby villages.
The strange and interesting thing is that Jesus did grow up and became a leader of his people, and his leadership impacted the whole world. But his kind of leadership was very different than that of Herod the Great.
He didn’t build temples to prove who he was or what he was about. He didn’t manipulate other world leaders in order to get his way like Herod did with the magi and Rome. He didn’t kill off those who threatened him or act suspicious of his allies in order to maintain his power at all cost.
Instead, Jesus fed the poor, healed the sick, spoke life-giving words to people who were listening, and invited them into a sacrificial way of life that was deeply transformative and completely at odds with the common path of leadership marked by power plays, manipulation and coercion. This Jesus would rather give his life for his enemies (even at the hands of his enemies) rather than take the lives of his enemies.
Somehow the one who was going to change the world was not the power mongers of the day but the tiny baby who lay in a simple feeding-trough at the lower level of a house in need of the care of a young couple.
A magnificent reversal that changed the definition of power and the course of human history.
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For the background information and sources Peter used for this blog, click on any of the following four Amazon links to books by New Testament scholar and professor N.T. Wright. You will be taken to amazon.com. You can purchase any of the books there.