We have no record of a conversation or a direct contact with any innkeeper, except what Luke reports in his second chapter. However, Luke does a good job of laying out the reasons why Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem in the first place. The Emperor Augustus had ordered everyone in the empire to go to their ancestral home to be registered so they could be taxed. His government needed and expected tax revenue as well as soldiers for his armies to be squeezed from conquered nations. While there is a question about the time of this registration, the fact is that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem.
Since they had been ordered to their ancestral home, we realize that many others would also be there at the same time. David, you may recall, as well as Solomon, had many wives. It was a large family indeed. And Luke described the situation like this: Luke 2:
1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town ofDavid, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. (Luke 2:2–5).
The exact time of this journey to Bethlehem is not clear. Giving an order from Rome for people to travel and register, and set up appropriate registration processes, etc. throughout the empire was not an exact science at that time. Carrying out such an order could have taken two or more years. Regardless, Joseph and Mary were there along with hundreds of others who were considered to be related to King David.
Imagine the picture. Joseph with a very pregnant wife arrived looking for a comfortable place to stay. Bethlehem was over-crowded. Many were looking for the same accommodations but no homes or rooms were available. Under those conditions, what options would an innkeeper have? With every room filled, the only choices would be to give Joseph and Mary a room in his own home and have some family member stay with the animals, or have the out-of-town travelers stay with the animals. So, as we read in Luke 2: 6, While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Yes, it would have been remarkable to read that much like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), some innkeeper in Bethlehem gave up his own room so that the Christ-Child didn’t have to be born in a barn. But as already noted, both Joseph and Mary were not broadcasting anything about the angel’s words to them. Any innkeeper would be unaware of the special guest he had put out with the animals. He was too busy with overcrowded conditions as it was.
And at this point, the innkeepers probably were already tired. How many times had they repeated the phrase, “No, we have no rooms available.” So the pregnant woman and her husband were looked upon as a problem rather than an opportunity. And what was the opportunity? To have their own name blazoned in Holy Scripture forever as the compassionate innkeeper of Bethlehem who gave up his own space for the Christ-Child and his parents. But, business was good and they were too busy to take notice. And they all missed it. But there were others who didn’t.
Picture yourself as a shepherd on a rather chilly but quiet evening on the outskirts of Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago. It had been an uneventful day except that you are aware that hundreds of people from all parts of Israel are arriving in your town. It had been rumored for some time that everyone remotely related to King David had to travel to Bethlehem to register for tax purposes. The Emperor had decreed that non-citizens of Rome from all over the empire were to be identified, counted and registered. Additional taxes were soon to follow.
It was a humiliating prospect. Taxes for local services such as roads, water and street cleaning were already high. Then comes an invading army requiring more tax revenue as ordered by a far-off Emperor. Sound familiar? Who knows but what these peasant-class workers, at the bottom of the social ladder, were discussing the sad state of affairs, To say the least, they were completely unprepared for what was about to burst into their quiet, pastoral scene.
Perhaps they had taken note of how clear the sky was and how bright the stars appeared. But whatever their conversation, it all ended abruptly. We read that what overtook them at that moment “terrified them.” Yes, over the years they might have seen lots of strange things out on the hillsides around Bethlehem. We know that the boy David, who later became king of Israel, had encountered a bear and a lion while he was watching his father’s sheep (I Samuel 17:34-36). Even so, we read in Luke, chapter 2, that these shepherds were terrified at what they now saw:
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Remember that when the angel Gabriel came to talk with Mary, she was shaken and alarmed. Here, outside Bethlehem in the stillness of the night, the sight and voice of the angel terrified the shepherds–certainly, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Even so, notice the angel’s declaration of verse 11, “Don’t be afraid, I have good news for you that will cause great joy for all people. A Savior has been born—the Messiah, the Lord.” While their eyes and ears might have been dazzled, can you imagine the impact of that announcement on their thinking? Perhaps not right at that moment, but as they passed those words over and over again through their thoughts, what impact would it have brought?
Yet the kaleidoscopic event wasn’t over. The intensity and impact of the initial message got turned up:
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
It is important to recognize what the shepherds heard and saw. In just moments, they would spread about that news to their friends, neighbors and to anyone who would listen. Yes, they were shepherds—probably not in the educated class even though one of their forerunners, David, had become king and Israel’s songwriter.
Regardless, these shepherds would know about the promises and mission of the Savior—the Messiah—from hearing the Jewish Scriptures. Today, that part of Christmas often doesn’t get reported, but we’ll return to that in a few pages.
Meanwhile, and after the angels had left the scene, the shepherds decided to check out the story they had heard. Something that astounding in a village that small had to be of great consequence. So,
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
What is somewhat surprising about this story is the anonymity accorded to the shepherds. Yes, they were nobodies, yet people were “amazed” at their report. Yes, they received angelic notice and verification of the greatest story in the history of mankind, but we haven’t a clue as to who they were. What had been foretold by prophets and seers for hundreds of years was dramatically announced to a group of nameless, peasant-class shepherds. What was the message that the Creator of heaven and earth was trying to tell them and us today? Have we received it?
Despite all this, these no-name shepherds were not intimidated. They wanted to verify that they were not just imagining things and that what they had seen was worthy of repeating to as many people as possible. And as we just read, they did both. They had the sense of an encounter with the eternal, getting news that was far beyond anything they had ever thought of.
To Jesus’ parents the report from the shepherds had to be reassuring. Joseph, maybe still wondering if he had really done the right thing, heard the same message from the shepherds that he had dreamed about. Mary, of course, began to create a reservoir of stories and details that would later be shared with people all over the world.
Nor can we forget why Luke may have included this story for us to read even today. Surely if a group of unlearned shepherds who heard the news about a Savior–the promised Messiah–went joyfully around their community to share the news, what does that say to us? What advantages of mind and possessions do we have that should encourage us to duplicate their act of devotion? It seemed to them the natural thing to do—to share their incredible good news with as many as possible. Can our response be anything less today?
Next: Simeon and Mary’s Testimonies