Pastor Note #87: Christmas — A Peasant King and the Foolishness of God

photo by GAC

Christmas as a holiday in America is in many ways sacrosanct.  I’m not referring to the Christian holiday.  Most American, including Christian Americans, don’t really celebrate Christmas as a biblical holiday.  We love the warm, cozy sweetness of the “traditional” Christmas holiday.  In order to preserve that warm, cozy sweetness, we have to gloss over a lot of the sharp edges and harsh facts that fill the biblical account of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus.

Let’s start with Mary.  What we know of her from Luke’s gospel tells us that she was a good girl, chaste and well-thought of by her family and community.  That’s why we can assume that everyone would have been deeply shocked and bitterly disappointed to learn that she was pregnant out of wedlock.  Of course, the only rational explanation—certainly, the only one anyone in their right mind would have believed—was that she had engaged in promiscuous sex and, therefore, that she was not the chaste good girl everyone thought she was.  We don’t know whether she even tried to explain the true story.  I mean really!  Who would believe a story like that?

Well, all right, there was one person, her fiancé, Joseph.  He decided to stick by her publicly.  Matthew tells us why he did that.  Do you suppose he tried to explain to his friends and family why he was sticking with this apparently promiscuous girl?  Well, maybe.  But again, really, who would believe it?  The obvious explanation was that Joseph knew perfectly well how Mary had gotten pregnant out of wedlock, because he was the one who got her that way.

Obeying God in an unbelieving world can be costly.  It will very often make you look foolish.  It will often render you unwelcome in polite company.  Mary and Joseph could have said no to God, but they didn’t.  And so, they had to put up with the rejection of their neighbors and probably their families also.

Part of a statuary pillar at the entrance to Highland Park in Pittsburgh, PA

The foreign overlords who were governing Judea at the time, the Romans, had forced a tax census at the time of Mary’s due date.  It was a serious hardship, but the Romans were not the least bit squeamish about imposing hardships on their subject peoples.  So, Mary and Joseph traveled to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem.  There this young couple was certainly taken in by some local peasant family.

Let me be plain here.  There is not a single word in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth that would even suggest that he was born in a stable.  There is not a word anywhere about a stable in Luke’s text.  And although all the translations talk about an inn.  The word for “inn” does not appear in the original text.  What Luke says is that there was no room in the “guest room.”  The situation that Luke describes would be plain to any middle eastern peasant who heard the story.  The family that took Mary and Joseph in had a house with a guest room.  But the guest room was already occupied by other guests.  So, the family simply brought this young, very pregnant woman into their own part of the house, so that when the time came they could help with the birth.

Jesus was born in someone’s living room.  We know that because Luke tells us that there was a manger – a feed trough – in the room where Jesus was born.  And a feed trough was standard furniture for every peasant home in Roman Palestine in those days.  Jesus was born in a family living room, because that’s where all peasant babies were born in that place and time.

Now, of course, if your were wealthy and powerful in those days, things would have been quite different.  A rich young woman would give birth in the tidy privacy of a well-furnished bedroom.  She would have been attended possibly by a physician but certainly by professional midwives.  But Jesus – the king of heaven and earth – was not born into a situation of wealth and privilege.  Jesus was born in a peasant home, attended to by a couple of older, experience peasant women and, after being swaddled in some clean but old clothes, he was laid in the feed trough lined with more clean clothes.

The Donkey with his Flock
The Donkey with his Flock; photo by GAC at Mt. Saviour Benedictine Monastery near Elmira, NY

Does that all seem strange to you?  Well, it wouldn’t have seemed at all strange in the low-rent district of Bethlehem in Roman Judea around 6 BC.  So, the angel army – yeah, Matthew calls it an army not a choir – the angel army announces the birth of the Lord Messiah to a group of hired sheep herders, describing him as being swaddled in old clothes and lying in a feed trough.  These are the night shift guys.  When these peasant shepherds hear that description, their reaction is certainly something like: “Wow! The Lord Messiah is born into a house just like mine, and he’s lying in a feed trough just like my babies were, just like I was.  This isn’t the kind of Messiah we were all supposed to be expecting.”

And that is exactly the message of Jesus’ birth.  The King and Savior of the world was not born into worldly wealth and power.  Wealth, political power, earthly glory are not the tools of the kingdom of God.  Our God chose to bring his Son into the world through a peasant girl and her fiancé who, because of that, were pushed to the edge of decent society.  He was born in a peasant house in the low-rent district of a little backwater village.  His birth was attended by a couple of old peasant women and celebrated by the night shift of some local farmhands.

We need to be careful lest we let our world seduce us into believing that the Christian faith can only survive in the world if it has those who are politically powerful and the financially wealthy to protect it.  God never thought that.  The way he brought his Son into the world makes that pretty clear.

The Apostle Paul explains God’s ways: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Cor. 1:25)  Political power, celebrity, and wealth seem so necessary to success in America, and Christians no less than anyone else are drawn to them.  Some will tell us that the Christianity will not survive in America without those things.  The Christmas story declares God’s disagreement.  The Apostle Paul goes on, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are.” (1 Cor. 1:27-28)

photo by GAC

Mary understood completely:  “My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. . . . He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.  He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:46, 52, & 53)

We are followers of a peasant King, a crucified Lord!  His kingdom will conquer the earth with an army of fools, outcasts, and the despised of the earth.  Merry Christmas!



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