I realize no how not only was I giving my congregation the short end of the stick, I was also neglecting my own personal growth in understanding this marvelous story of God's love. I was also allowing the biases of what I had been taught throughout the years dominate instead of truly digging in to what the Scriptures really said. And I have found that in some cases, the translation of one, single word can make a huge difference.
I have seen several links in my Facebook feed from fellow clergy and others this week about Mary and Joseph being turned away from the inn. Some have tied this event to the current refugee crisis even proclaiming that we are all "innkeepers." While there is indeed a tie between how we treat refugees and our Christian faith, using the story of Mary and Joseph's travels to Bethlehem to make this point isn't necessarily the best thing to do.
What if I told you Mary and Joseph weren't turned away from an inn?
Maybe that strikes you as odd considering everything you have ever been taught. Maybe that strikes you as sacrilegious. Maybe I am ruining the Christmas story for you.
I would apologize, but there is something even more significant going on. I never realized it until this week when I actually picked up my commentaries and read through what they said about this text.
Let me walk you through what they say:
John Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary: κατάλυμα (kataluma) is a flexible word and can denote any kind of place where one might stay, from a primitive inn to a guest-room of a house to a totally unspecified place where one might stay...On this reading it is best to think of an overcrowded Palestinian peasant home: a single-roomed home with an animal stall under the same roof (frequently to be distinguished from the family living quarters only by the raised platform floor of the latter)...κατάλυμα will, then refer to the living quarters provided by a single-roomed Palestinian home in which hospitality has been extended to Mary and Joseph.
Walter L. Liefeld, New Expositor's Bible Commentary: The word katalyma, usually translated "inn" may mean a room (e.g. the "guest room" used for the Last Supper [Luke 22:11], referred to as an "upper room" in [Luke 22:12], a billet for soldiers, or any place of lodging, which would include inns. It is not, however, the usual Greek word for an inn--pandocheion, to which the Good Samaritain took the robbery victim (10:34).
Joel B. Green, New International Commentary on the New Testament: The term Luke employs here for "guest room" is often translated in English as "inn." However, the same term appears in 22;11 with the meaning "guest room," and the verbal form occurs in 9:12 and 19:7 with the sense of "finding lodging" or "be a guest." Moreover in 10:34, where a commercial inn is clearly demanded by the text, Luke draws on different vocabulary. It is doubtful whether a commercial inn actually existed in Bethlehem, which stood on no major roads...That "guest room" is the more plausible meaning here is urged by the realization that in peasant homes in the ancient Near East family and animals slept in one enclosed space with the animals located on the lower level. Mary and Joseph, then, would have been the guests of family or friends, but their home would have been so overcrowded that the baby was placed in a feeding trough.
According to the Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament: κατάλυμα: guest room, dining room, Mk 14:14; Lk 22:11. Since Lk 10:34 uses the more specific term for inn, πανδοχειον, the term κ in 2:7 is best understood as guest room.
There are a couple of possibilities on this: one, the house was so crowded that Mary and Joseph had no place to set down the baby Jesus, and so they headed downstairs to lay him down in the manger. That's the nice reading.
The second is one my wife had insight into when I was telling her about the appropriate translation. Mary and Joseph were no married when Mary became pregnant. Despite what I am sure Joseph said, his willingness to stay with Mary undoubtedly brought shame to Joseph's family. Joseph and Mary would have been seen as outsiders; breakers of God's Law. Mary should have been stoned to death. The fact that Joseph didn't have this done or dismiss Mary from betrothal would have been seen as an absolute blemish. The couple would not have been welcome into the midst of their very own family, and they were relegated to staying with the animals as no room was made to accommodate them in the guest room--even though Mary was in advanced pregnancy. This means that even at His birth, those who should have been making room for Him were rejecting Him. This adds more emphasis to what the Gospel writer John says in chapter one, "He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him."
In my estimation, the proper translation of κατάλυμα sends the reading into a deeper pain of rejection: the closest family to Jesus--his earthly father's--should have welcomed Him, made space for Him, and made sure He did not rest in a cattle stall. Yet, foreshadowing His ultimate rejection, even at an infant, they turned their backs on Him when He was in need--all because of their perceived shame.