Something has been really annoying me, this ‘festive’ season. Several days ago the person doing Thought For The Day was drawing a somewhat stretched parallel between the misery and despair in the situation of women who end up as prostitutes (and the compassion with which we should regard them) and the situation of Mary in Bethlehem when there was no room for them in the inn. He’d been in a brothel in India, he said, and there was nothing glamorous about it: doesn’t that remind you of the gritty realities that Mary faced, which don’t quite match with the sentimentalised version of events portrayed in nativity scenes and carols.
As he pointed out, prostitution in Britain is almost always, in something like 90% of cases, linked with one or more of these three factors: addiction, abuse, and dysfunctional personal relationships. (This observation not only shows the futility of the arguments in favour of legalising prostitution in this country, but also highlights the sick desperation of the men who provide the demand in this exploitative trade: that by the way.) Prostitution is not a choice, in other words, for the majority of women involved – unless it’s the choice between that and thieving, as one of the women recently murdered in Surrey was quoted in the papers as saying.
But my point is, basically, that the situation of these women is worlds away from how Mary was placed in Luke 2. There was no addiction, there was no abuse, and she was honourably engaged to be married to a very decent man. They weren’t particularly well off, and a manger wasn’t maybe the most luxurious of cots for a newborn baby, but everything was going according to plan and both Mary and Joseph were content with the situation.
All these associations which people try to draw between Mary and women in difficult situations today, don’t really hold water. However old Mary was, she wasn’t ‘a teenage mum.’ Although Joseph wasn’t the biological father, the child was not illegitimate. They might have been poverty stricken, and only able to offer a pair of pigeons for a sacrifice, but it wasn’t a poverty inflicted by substance abuse and inappropriate lifestyle choices.
It doesn’t bother me in the least to think of the gospel message mingling with the grubby realities of our miserable contemporary society. That is, after all, what it’s for – and the even more miserable, grubby reality of our situation is something called sin, and original sin at that, which tends not to come too sharply into focus when Thought For The Day types blether away about society’s problems.
But the gospel message isn’t primarily a message of sympathy – it’s a message of rescue. It may well be helpful to a person with problems to know that someone else has gone through an equivalent tough time, but the gospel is better than that – a way of escape from our misery which is caused by our sin – and escape from the eternal punishment which is the consequence of our sin, and ultimately escape from our sin itself. The reason why the hope and joy of the gospel is lost has a lot more to do with the minimising of the problem of sin which it is designed to deal with, than a failure to find any meaningful parallels between a given person’s situtation and that of some bible characters.