December 18, 2022

Some have suggested that Joseph gets short shrift in the Christmas story but that’s quite so true not so much in Matthew’s version.  Where Luke puts all the emphasis on Mary, and most of the general focus  in our Christmas pageants is on everything from Magi to shepherds and angels to even the Inn Keeper and the manger.  But Matthew, at least, makes Joseph a significant part of the story.

After all, if Mary and Joseph were living in Bethlehem, as Matthew suggests, or in Nazareth as Luke says, they were both small village where everyone knew everyone and   where cultural codes were strictly enforced.  It was a different time, a different set of mores. Young women  simply d not get pregnant before they were officially married. And if they did there were severe consequences. Not only was there of hushed talk, the family shame made you something of an outcast. And if your fiancé got pregnant by someone else they called that adultery and a woman could get stoned to death for it.

You can imagine Joseph’s shock when Mary told him she was pregnant. Mathew says he was a “Righteous Man.” That would mean other things that he was steeped in the Judaism of his ancestors.  He knew the Torah. He knew the codes and traditions of his people. The “Law” or Torah was something sacred to him.

So, what does this righteous man of the Law do when he finds out his fiancé has somehow turned up pregnant? He decides to quietly, and privately, break off the engagement. He does not want to make a spectacle of her or cause her unnecessary pain. He just wants to quietly and gracefully back out of the deal.

The picture we get here of Joseph is of a man who exemplifies the kind of righteousness that Jesus himself later talks about. -A righteousness based on compassion and grace. A righteousness that put people first.

Marcus Borg, the late new Testament scholar and author suggested in his book, “Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time,”  says one of the foundational verses of Jesus’ teaching is found in Luke 6:36, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” Some translations use the word merciful instead of compassionate. But, says Borg, compassionate is a better translation of the Greek.

The word “Compassion” in Hebrew is literally the plural for the word “Womb.”  It suggests the quality of mothering. It is both a feeling and a way of being that flows out of that feeling. It is to feel with, to identify with, to understand as if a part of yourself were there.

You see the idea at work in Jesus’ life, as when the woman caught in adultery is about to be stoned and Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Or, when he eats and drinks with those ritually unclean. Jesus says at several points “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

For Jesus true purity was something about the heart and soul of a person and genuine morality had to include that quality of compassion.  Joseph, it seems, shows some of this compassionate dimension even before Jesus was born. His righteousness was not the stiff-necked goodness always looking to find fault, but rather it was the caring, generous love that showed itself in kindness and respect for others, including Mary.

It could not have been easy for a man of his day to accept this woman and this child with an open readiness to embrace and nurture them.  Yes, in the end, we are told, God intervened, but only in the form of a dream where an angel offers solace and assurance that this is part of God’s plan.

To his credit and surely as part of the understanding of the day, Joseph didn’t assume that he had to many Matzo balls the day before and that this dream was just the sign of indigestion Rather he took the meaning to heart and went ahead with the wedding plans embracing Mary and this baby who will not be Joseph Jr. –

Matthew’s birth story has no shepherds with angels singing, no appearances of angels to Mary only this one angel in a dream. A kind of foggy uncertain affirmation to go on. But isn’t that how it is for most of us? Knowing God’s will is rarely all that clear. We are left with hints, inspirations, and maybe dreams. Not often do we have angels showing up in the middle of the day making things clear.  No neon signs to mark the way.

Even in Matthew’s story Joseph doesn’t say a lot, he simply does what is right and caring. –Not a bad man to pick as the father of the Messiah.

You know what’s interesting about Matthew’s story also is that not only does he trace Jesus lineage to Abraham, the father of Israel, -back through Joseph no less,-he also mentions five women in his genealogy: the first is Tamar, a Canaanite woman who gets treated rather shabbily by her Hebrew in-laws after her husband dies. (Ge. 38) Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute, who helps the Hebrews, (Josh. 2:1-3 & 6: 17-25). Ruth, another foreigner, who marries into Judaism (Book of Ruth). Bathsheba, who King David married after having her husband killed in battle, (IISam. 11 -12.) And finally, Mary, the wife of Joseph.

Quite a list! -There’s more woven in there than just trying to say that Jesus is a descendant of Abraham and King David, don’t you think? Foreign women, some pure, some not so pure, are integral to the background ancestry of Jesus!  Certainly, that’s not a part of the story we talk much about at Christmas. But Matthew makes a point to put all this into the story, along with the Magi, who are also gentiles by the way, and would have been unclean by the strict interpretation of the Jewish law. Matthew is making a point to say that Jesus is a universal Messiah who exceeded all the old expectation and pre-conceptions.

Biblical scholar, the Rev. Dr. Fredrick Dale Bruner, in his two volume commentary on the gospel of Matthew notes that “Through the Joseph and Mary story Matthew says that from the moment this “Emmanuel was conceived he had a way of causing righteous people to rethink what was righteous. When the baby was born, all values were turned upside down, everything had to be reconsidered. For every righteous person like Simeon or Anna, Zechariah, or Elizabeth, for whom the baby Jesus was an answer to their prayer, a dream come true, and a cause for lots of singing, there had to be lots of people like Joseph for whom this was a nightmare, a tongue-tying embarrassment, a befuddling shock which required a quiet rethinking of everything upon which life is based, a challenge to come forward and commit; to allo0w God to work righteousness through us, and despite us, rather than to make righteousness an act of our own.”

Some 20 centuries later everywhere Joseph’s story is told, his foster child tends to have the same effect on people.  It is a story, not only of beauty and pageantry and miracle, but a story that continues to challenge us to hear and live the way of God.

Joseph was more than just an anonymous “Good Joe” sidelight to the story. Joseph is integral to the message if we hear Matthew clearly.


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