The innkeeper had no incentive to care about the exhausted and expecting couple. Caesar Augustus had called a census, and everyone within at least five miles of Bethlehem was either on their way in to be enrolled or on their way out. He was occupied with his own affairs; his inn was full. “Sorry,” he says. “There is no room for you here.” Maybe he spared a prayer for the couple as they left in search of shelter. Maybe not. They were, to him, simply two more unknown faces in a deluge of strangers.
“And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” -Lk. 2:7 (RSVCE)
In a single line of Scripture, St. Luke the Evangelist introduced a profoundly subversive message that would grow in breadth and depth parallel to the growth of the Christ-child throughout his Gospel. It was not that the Jewish expectation for a Messiah was rooted too much in worldly power and might, though we hold that to be true. It was not that salvation is ushered in on humility and poverty (of spirit), though this is also true. No, the truly shocking message revealed by the winged-bull was that God’s forgiveness and openness to reconciliation does not depend on any prior acknowledgement or deservedness on our part.
This is the message of mercy, and it subverts the entire fabric of our justice-based social and moral order. We, like those who inhabited the world recorded in Scripture, instinctively balk at the idea of opening the door to reconciliation without first receiving some sort of compensation for our grievance: I’ll forgive you once you admit you were wrong and apologize. We are accustomed to making justice a condition for forgiveness.
When we expect justice to be a condition for forgiveness we relinquish our personal agency and become enslaved by the agency of the other. Our thoughts and actions become reactionary in the presence of the one who has wronged us. We become blind to everything but their sin, their wrongness before us, and their obstinacy in embracing repentance. In our blindness, we shun, and we belittle, and we snark with a false sense of impunity, because they wronged us first.
But this is not what God did. He did not wait for humanity to deserve his forgiveness. He looked beyond our obstinacy and our self-imposed smallness and made himself even smaller so that as he grew, we could grow with him. And in order to grow, we must imitate our Lord and first become small before others. We need to get into the habit of looking past others’ obstinacy and smallness–self-imposed or otherwise–and recognize that there is a human being in there, created in God’s image and likeness and cradling a unique dignity, broken by sin as it may be.
I am grateful to God and to all of the family and friends who have shown me abundant mercy and forgiveness over the years. Thank you for making room for me and helping me grow.