Brief synopsis of the readings: Still in Isaiah, we see God instructing Ahaz to ask for a sign. Ahaz dared not ask anything of God and God responds with frustration: “Is it not enough for you to weary people, must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” In Matthew’s Gospel we hear the account of Mary and Joseph. When Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant he decides to quietly divorce her. But an angel comes and tells him not to be afraid to take care of Mary and raise Jesus.
Ripped from the headlines! Welcome to Dr. Phil. Today we have Joseph, a righteous man, and Mary, his fiance. She will share with all of us that she is pregnant and Joseph isn’t the father. And you won’t believe her story: She wants us to believe that she’s still a virgin and the father of her baby is, get this, the Holy Spirit.
So is anyone else grateful that we didn’t have “ripped from the headlines” back in the day? I know I am.
And so what do we make of this Gospel? Unfortunately it’s one of those readings we’ve heard so often we can be forgiven for thinking we already know what it tells us about the actions leading up to the birth of Jesus. But I’d like us to look anew at these events.
I’ve always found it frustrating that we know so little about Mary. For all the we revere her we know precious little about her. But we know even less about Joseph. Matthew and Luke describe Joseph as Mary’s fiance but Mark and John make no mention. In Luke we learn about Joseph and Mary returning to Jerusalem to find the 12 year old Jesus teaching in the Temple, but that’s the last mention of Joseph. He is lost to history.
And yet we all speak of Joseph as if we knew him. I was recently reminded that when I preached at my grandfather’s funeral in 1995 I mentioned Joseph. We know that Joseph was a carpenter and my grandfather worked in factories making wooden baby furniture. At my grandfather’s funeral I suggested he seek out Joseph: “You’ll recognize him in his handshake. His hand will be rough and calloused too, because like you he was a man who worked with his hands. He was not a man of words but a man who could see beauty in a piece of wood, who understood the quiet satisfaction of a job well done.” As with many of those in the Bible, we have written our own stories into the people we read about.
But the more I think about Joseph and Mary the more questions come to mind. I’ve said this many times before, but so often in Scripture we see ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations. We think often of the encounter between Mary and the angel Gabriel because Luke records their encounter but what of the discussion between Mary and Joseph?
I think every woman recognizes the fear and even terror of having to break the news of an unplanned pregnancy. We know from the woman caught in adultery (John chapter 8) that Mary’s condition was serious, and perhaps even fatal. In Leviticus 20:10 we learn that if a man has sex with his neighbor’s wife, both are to be stoned.
Joseph could well have called her out: she was pregnant and he knew he wasn’t the father. But he was a righteous man who decided not to expose her to shame and decided instead to quietly divorce her. We’re not sure what that means but we can assume that he didn’t wish to raise a child that wasn’t his but also didn’t want to shame her in public. I can only assume “divorce” meant that he would return her to her family and let them deal with her.
So we find Joseph parting ways with his fiance, but then suddenly everything changes. Unlike Mary, we don’t know the name of the angel who appeared to Joseph. But this angel confirms Mary’s story: while this child isn’t yours, he will save the world. I can’t imagine how this angel convinced Joseph, but I’m glad he did. Whatever the angel said Joseph was convinced.
We live 2000 years after these events and most of us consider ourselves “pro life.” It’s a badge we where with pride, and we should look at Joseph as our founder. Had he called out Mary and accused her of adultery both she and her unborn baby may have suffered stoning. I wasn’t able to find out if a pregnant woman would have been stoned; our sense of justice today would have demanded the unborn child not be harmed but we can’t assume that the people of Jesus’ time felt the same way.
When Joseph agreed to take responsibility for Mary and Jesus, he chose a hard road. Not only did he raise a child who was not his own, he was a child conceived in the murkiest of circumstances. But I like the image of Joseph teaching Jesus his craft, and also simply teaching Jesus how to be a righteous man. We know that Jesus was born without sin, but under no circumstances did it mean that Jesus didn’t need parenting.
One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry was his welcoming of women as disciples. I like to think we could see Joseph’s fingerprints on Jesus’ relationship to women.