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Pacific Ponderings

None to Give Room

The Joseph Smith Translation (JST) alters a familiar verse in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. Instead of “there was no room for them in the inn,” the JST reads, “there was none to give room for them in the inns.” This alteration reveals important insight about the first Christmas as well as about our obligation as Christians every Christmas and every other day of the year. It reminds us of the core message that Christ would later preach about neighbor-love: we “prepare him room” by loving our neighbors.

The traditional translation “no room for them in the inn” emphasizes a lack of housing in the local hostelries. It focuses on a shortage of suitable sleeping space for the strangers crowding the town. The JST translation, by contrast, emphasizes the lack of room in human hearts. It focuses on a shortage of sympathy for the strangers. In the King James Version the accent falls on the noun “room.” In the JST it falls on the verbal phrase “none to give room.” It’s not that there was no room but that there was no one willing to make room for Mary and Joseph.

The fundamental problem in the JST is not bed-space but heart-space. A more generous heart could have found room. After all, the inn keepers presumably slept in beds that night. If nothing else, they could have made room for Mary in their own beds. But Mary and Joseph found none to give them room.

The JST also changes “inn” to “inns.” The plural adds a small but telling detail to the story. It was not just one inn keeper who refused to give Mary and Joseph room. It was many. The plural “inns” invites us to imagine Joseph and Mary going from inn to inn, only to be turned away again and again. It conjures up a story of repeated rejections.

And why were they rejected? Consider the possible implications of the little phrase “for them” in both translations. There was “no room for them”; “none to give room for them.” Do you suppose if Mary and Joseph had been more rich and famous that one or maybe all of the inn keepers would have found room for them? In our day, money talks. I suspect that the same was true in Bethlehem that first Christmas. If only Mary and Joseph had been rich! But they were poor.

How do we know this? When they presented their firstborn son to the Lord in the temple 40 days after the birth in obedience to the Mosaic Law, they offered two pigeons instead of a lamb. This was the less expensive sacrifice that Leviticus provided for new mothers who could not afford a lamb: “And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles [i.e., doves], or two young pigeons.” (Lev. 12:8; see also 5:7).

This detail verifies that Mary and Joseph were poor, which is consistent with Mary’s self-description as a “handmaiden” of “low estate” (Luke 1:48). The scene in Luke is one of indigent strangers at the door. Hence, there was “none to give room for them in the inns”—not for poor nobodies like Mary and Joseph!

The Christmas story reminds us of our obligation to make room in the inns of our hearts for the poor, the stranger, the outcast, and the needy. This is a lesson that Jesus would often teach in his ministry, including in a story about another inn. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, a smug lawyer “seeking to justify himself” asked Jesus “who is my neighbor?” His snarky question appears to be born of the desire both to engage Jesus in intellectual repartee and to justify himself in drawing lines that exclude others from the circle of neighbor-love.

But the Master recasts the question similar to the way the JST recasts Luke 2:7. He changes the focus from noun to verb; from “who is my neighbor” to “who acted as neighbor.” The question for the inn keepers in Bethlehem, for those on the road to Jericho, and for all of us is: Can we give room in our hearts for those in need?

This Christmas and always, may we be among those who welcome others into the circle of our love even when there is none to give them room. In the words of the carol: “Let every heart prepare him room.”