Joseph and Mary were Neither Homeless Nor Refugees
The Christmas story has been turned into a political message about homelessness. Recently, liberals have claimed that when Mary and Joseph could not find a room in Bethlehem – you guessed it – it’s just like today’s refugee problem. Never let a contrived Bible story go to waste.
The problem with the refugee analogy is that Joseph was not a foreigner seeking refuge since he was from Bethlehem.
It’s similar to a family wanting to return to their hometown during the Super Bowl and not being able to find a motel room because the place is sold out. The big difference, of course, is the government didn’t force them to return to their place of birth to register so the Empire could make sure they were being taxed enough.
Jesse Jackson was the first liberal to turn Christmas into a political propaganda piece. It was in the December 26, 1988, issue if Jet Magazine. The title of the article was “Jesse Jackson Tells the Real Meaning of Christmas.”
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He made the same claim in 1991 when George H. W. Bush was president.1 He repeated his “homeless couple” theme at the 1992 Democratic National Convention:
“We hear a lot of talk about family values, even as we spurn the homeless on the street. Remember, Jesus was born to a homeless couple, outdoors in a stable, in the winter. He was the child of a single mother. When Mary said Joseph was not the father, she was abused. If she had aborted the baby, she would have been called immoral. If she had the baby, she would have been called unfit, without family values. But Mary had family values. It was Herod — the [Dan] Quayle of his day — who put no value on the family.”
In 1999, Jackson stated that Christmas “is not about parties, for [Mary and Joseph] huddled alone in the cold stable. It isn’t about going into debt to buy extravagant presents; the greatest Gift was given to them although they had no money. It is about a homeless couple, finding their way in a mean time.”2
Read related article: “The Christmas Story is Not about a Refugee Family.”
Barbara Reynolds, a former columnist for USA Today, scolded the “Christian Right” for opposing government welfare programs by appealing to the birth narrative of the Bible: “They should recall,” she writes, “that Jesus Christ was born homeless to a teen who was pregnant before she was married.”3
Hillary Clinton, in comments critical of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s homeless policies, sought to remind the easily manipulated and ill-informed that “Christmas celebrates ‘the birth of a homeless child.’”4
Rev. William Sterrett told The Providence (RI) Journal that the true Christmas story is about the poor and needy. “We have a very clear picture about the whole thing,” Sterrett said. “But the truth is Mary and Joseph were homeless. She gave birth to Jesus in a barn. This image captures the essence of a Christmas story because you cannot get any poorer than that.” There’s no evidence that Jesus was born in a barn.
Pat Nichols, writing for The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, MA), concludes, “At the core, the story of Christmas is about a homeless couple about to have a baby. It is a story about poverty that most of us never experience, people with little more than they carry on their backs and a donkey to provide transportation.”5
Have these people ever read the Bible? The Christmas story is set during a time of government control, high taxation, and political oppression. Here are the biblical facts:
- Mary went to live with her cousin Elizabeth upon hearing about her pregnancy and “stayed with her about three months, and then returned to her home” (Luke 1:56). If Mary returned to her own, then she was not homeless.
- Joseph had a job as a self‑employed carpenter (Matt. 13:55). While they weren’t rich, they were not poverty stricken (Luke 2:24; Lev. 5:11; 12:8).
- An edict from the centralized Roman government forced Joseph and Mary to expend valuable resources to return to their place of birth to register for a tax (Luke 2:1-7). Joseph’s business was shut down while he took his very pregnant wife on a tax-raising scheme concocted by the Roman Empire.
- Typical of governments that make laws without considering the consequences, there was not enough housing for the great influx of traveling citizens and subjects who had to comply with the governmental decree (Luke 2:1).
- Mary and Joseph had enough money to pay for lodging. The problem was inadequate housing, not a lack of funds or inhospitality. The Greek word translated “inn” (Luke 2:7) is inaccurate when compared to the same word used in Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11 where it’s translated as “guestroom.”
“The Greek word commonly rendered in English as ‘inn’ in Luke 2 is the same word frequently translated as ‘guest room’ in Luke 22 [verse 11], meaning that it was probably the guest quarters in a crowded family home where Mary could find no space for labor, requiring her to descend with Joseph into the lower part of the house where the animals were stored at night in order to give birth. . . . [S]ince Joseph and Mary were probably staying with his family members, it’s highly unlikely that they had any doors slammed in their face on the night when Christ was born, rendering the ‘you’re just as heartless as those hotel managers’ accusation rather toothless.”6
- If we follow liberal logic, any family that takes a trip and finds a “no vacancy” sign is technically homeless. But let’s not give the government any ideas.
- Joseph and Mary owned or rented a home. It was in their home that the wise men offered their gifts: “And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matt. 2:11).
- If Mary and Joseph were homeless, it was the private charity of the wise men that helped them, not a government welfare program. See the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37).
- Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were a family on the run when Herod, a government official, became a threat to them (Matt. 2:13–15). Once again, government intervention was the problem.
Politicians and social critics are quick to quote and misquote the Bible when they can twist its message to support their quirky and dangerous political views. When conservatives appeal to the Bible, we hear the inevitable “separation of church and state,” “you can’t impose your morality on other people,” “religion and politics don’t mix.” But they are quick to impose their distorted view of biblical morality on the rest of us through the power of civil government.
The Advent story, in addition to being a demonstration of God’s love toward sinners, is also about how taxes hurt the poor and government decrees can turn productive families into the disenfranchised by enacting and enforcing counterproductive laws.
- The Atlanta Journal/Constitution (December 28, 1991), A9. [↩]
- Jesse Jackson, “The Homeless Couple,” Los Angeles Times (December 22, 1999). [↩]
- Barbara Reynolds, “These political Christians neither religious nor right,” USA Today (Nov. 18, 1994), 13A. [↩]
- Cited in “Washington” under Politics in USA Today (December 1, 1999), 15A. [↩]
- Pat Nichols, “It’s time to offer a helping hand,” The Berkshire Eagle (December 12, 2004). [↩]
- Hans Fiene, “The Christmas Story Is About Christ, Not Obama’s Syrian Refugee Policy,” The Federalist (Nov. 18, 2015). See “No Room in the Inn? Why the Traditional Christmas Story is Wrong” by Mikel Del Rosario. [↩]