The Innkeeper and the Prick of Conscience

Did you ever wonder about characters who make only bit appearances in the Bible? What happened after the scene in which they appear? What they were thinking?

I saw an Advent play the other night, Like Winter Waiting, with script, lyrics and music by John Foley, S.J. At one point late in the play, there was a short scene in which a single character appears – the innkeeper who turns Mary and Joseph away.

All we know from St. Matthew’s Gospel is that Mary laid Jesus in a manger “because there was no room for them in the inn.” So in our minds, an innkeeper turned Mary and Joseph away, and that is the end of the innkeeper as far as the Gospel narrative is concerned.

In this play, the innkeeper appears on stage and is deep in thought. She then proceeds to engage in a monologue during which she questions her decision to turn Joseph and Mary away. Of course I was right to send them away – I can’t be letting in that kind of person. But there was something in her eyes – and she was so near to her time. But there was no room – what was I to do? He looked so hopeless. Perhaps I should have offered them my bed? No – you can’t be too careful, you know and who knows what kind of people they were. But we are taught to be compassionate. And so on – trying to justify her decision, but plagued by doubts.

The scene affected me deeply. Part of it was the idea that a character we give no further thought to actually has some prior and subsequent history to that which appears to us. And it made me wonder about some other people who only have bit parts in the story of Jesus.

But I also think it was this particular dialogue that affected me, because I think her experience is not dissimilar to our own. When we do something unloving or selfish, we very much try to justify it to ourself. At the same time, if we are generally good people who try to live by Gospel values, our conscience pricks at us when we act contrary to those values.

The question is, what happens when we engage in the kind of monologue in which the innkeeper engaged? What do we say to God? And what do we learn from the experience?

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