This spoof front page from The Daily Mail first appeared on the satirical website The Poke on Christmas Eve 2015, but someone sent it to me the other day because they thought it had lost none of its resonance with current events. Spun like this the Christmas story could make the front page on any slow news day.
Whether or not the Holy Family really could be said to have wrecked the barn where Jesus was laid in the manger, a lot of the other elements of the story do have an element of truth. According to Matthew’s Gospel they did become refugees and, by definition, refugees are jobless and don’t pay any taxes - at least to begin with.
Refugees and other homeless people hanging out in people’s barns, or hotel rooms, can still have an impact on property values too. Presumably that’s why a hotel in Hull decided it wasn’t keen to repeat an experiment last year where it entertained about 20 homeless people alongside its paying guests.
Eventually, after a lot of bad publicity, it did offer to invite them back, so long as the charity which is paying for the rooms was prepared to cover the cost of any damage. But the charity claimed that last year the homeless guests offered to clean the rooms instead of damaging them, so grateful were they to come in out of the cold. This year it has found a different hotel where they can stay.
Suspicion of foreigners, especially from the Middle-East, hasn’t gone away either. A clever advert showing Syrian and Iraqi refugees queuing to enter the European Union is one of the things that was credited with persuading people to vote for Brexit.
Criticism of single mothers is, of course, perennial, and is part of the endless effort to distinguish the deserving poor, who need help, from people who are merely playing the system. Was Mary a manipulative young woman who duped Joseph into looking after her with a sob story about an angel, or was she someone deserving of his support because she was obediently submitting to God’s will? This argument has been going on since shortly after Jesus’ death.
I like the bullet point which reads: ‘Shock! Despite claiming to be virtually penniless, the selfish donkey-owning couple still had a baby, and you’re paying for it!’ Here we’re well beyond the realm of the Bible story. There’s no suggestion that Mary and Joseph didn’t pay their way. Nor do we know that they owned a donkey. And they were never travellers slinking from town to town claiming countless benefits.
But when he grew up, Jesus did adopt almost exactly the kind of lifestyle which the headlines describe. He did go from town to town relying on people’s charity or on donations from wealthy benefactors.
He put a different spin on it. He said that we worry too much about where our food and clothes are going to come from. Instead, he called on people to trust in God’s providence.
The whole story of Jesus, from his birth to his resurrection, challenges our usual assumptions, the way we characterise things, the way we expect them to be. It challenges our preconceptions about people with nowhere to stay, refugees fleeing from unspeakable violence, people coming from different places, single parent families and young people shifting from place to place in search of their dream. God is with us in all of these experiences. And just as God empathises with us, and shares our condition, the human condition, he expects us to empathise with, to be with, others.