Fully Human 3: Shady Birth
I was born into a loving family who eagerly planned for my arrival. Sadly, many people were not planned for and feel like they were never really wanted or loved by their families. Amazingly, I think Jesus understands (and knows intimately) exactly how they feel.
Each Christmas the cute Nativity scene of Jesus’ birth fills us with warm fuzzy feelings of love and bliss, but we completely overlook how scandalous, shady, humiliating, and shameful it really was. We do not realize that the self-humbling and self-emptying of Jesus began before he was even born (Phil 2:5-8).
Luke begins the birth-story by mentioning three key details: God sent the angel Gabriel ‘to a virgin pledged to be married (Lk 1:27-28)’ to tell her ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon’ her and that she will soon be pregnant. So she is: 1) a virgin; 2) pledged to be married (but not married); and 3) soon to be pregnant by God’s Spirit! When an ancient Jewish couple wanted to marry, they made a formal pledge of marriage and then had one year to prepare themselves while still living with their parents. During that year the couple was considered legally married, but they would not live together or have sexual relations until the actual wedding.
We must also remember that God and His people took sexual purity very seriously, and adultery was so offensive that Jewish Law called for adulterers to be stoned to death (Lev 20:10). In fact, because couples like Joseph and Mary, who were ‘pledged’ to be married but not fully married, were legally considered husband and wife, Mary’s pregnancy while ‘pledged’ to Joseph would have been interpreted by their families and society as adultery. According to Jewish Law, Joseph could have had her executed.
In fact, Mary’s pregnancy was so scandalous that at first Joseph did not even believe her and was going to divorce her (Mt 1:19), presumably to avoid the shame and humiliation of staying together. He only believed her later because an angel appeared to him explaining everything, but their parents, families, friends, and neighbors never received any angelic explanations and must have viewed them with suspicion and disgust.
We see these themes again in Jesus’ actual birth (Lk 2:1-7). Joseph and Mary go to Joseph’s ‘own town to register’ for the census (v.3); since he comes from the family of David, they go to Bethlehem. It is almost certain Joseph would have had tons of (extended) family living or staying in Bethlehem during the census, because they all had to go there to be counted. This is important because v.5 says Joseph went ‘with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.’ Again: ‘pledged to be married’ (but not married); and Mary is pregnant. That means everyone would have assumed that either: 1) Mary and Joseph had pre-marital sex; or 2) Mary committed adultery, both of which were completely scandalous.
Then comes our favorite line: ‘She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.’ Having to go to an ‘inn’ implies that in a town overflowing with Joseph’s family, Joseph and Mary were forced to go to a hotel. Seriously? But that word translated ‘inn’ can also mean the ‘upper room’ of a Jewish house, which would imply Joseph and Mary knocked on his families’ doors and asked to come in, but were told the rooms were full and were then shut out to fend for themselves. Now even if the ‘upper rooms’ were full of Joseph’s relatives, you would think they would have seen his desperate situation and made room for them! But they did not.
So why on earth would Joseph and Mary be forced to give birth alone and outside, placing Jesus in a feeding trough for animals, when Joseph would have had family living and staying in houses all over Bethlehem? What could possibly explain why Joseph’s family shut them out?
I think the answer is simple: Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were not welcome. I think Joseph’s family saw this pregnancy as so shameful, unacceptable, and embarrassing, that they rejected Joseph, Mary, and their illegitimate child. But how disgusted would they need to be in order to reject their own family like that?
And why on earth would the God of the universe choose such scandalous circumstances to come to us? Why as a weak, rejected, illegitimate child of shame, embarrassment, and scorn? Maybe it is so we know just how much He cares for and identifies with the most unwanted, rejected, and broken people around. Maybe it is to remind us that in this world of multi-national corporations and billionaires, God is especially concerned about the weak and oppressed, and therefore we should be too.
Jesus’ humanity reveals the ultimate paradox: the Humble God. Before Jesus, being ‘humble’ was not a compliment; it was an insult describing the weak and powerless. But Jesus’ birth demands this paradox. The creator of the universe arrives on the scene covered in blood, pooping his diapers, despised and rejected by most of his family.
What could have possibly caused Him to do such a thing?
If this story is true: then how does that change the way you view God? How might it affect the way you view those who are weak, helpless, oppressed, or cast aside by society? When I think of Jesus willingly coming to us in this way, it leaves me in awe. What a breathtaking demonstration of love! The challenge is: how do we respond to it?
For the entire Fully Human series click here.