The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Of the four Gospels, only Luke and Matthew offer us birth narratives of Jesus. Luke’s story tends to focus on Mary as the active parent, while Matthew focuses on Joseph as the active parent, or, more theologically accurate, active step-parent.
There’s a wonderful meme circulating on social media this holiday season that depicts Mary taking a nap on a straw covered palette, while Joseph is seated next to her in a chair cradling the swaddled baby Jesus. I love this image because it shows Joseph as an involved parent and not some aloof father. He has taken his role as a parent seriously, not leaving childcare to the mother, while he focused on his carpentry work to bring home the bacon . . . or, as he was Jewish, the bagels!
The circumstances surrounding Mary’s pregnancy certainly didn’t bode well for Joseph being an involved parent. As Matthew tells us, Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married. In the culture of first century Palestine this engagement required fidelity to your betrothed. When Mary finds herself pregnant, Joseph automatically believes that she has been unfaithful. The Law of Moses was very clear about the penalty for infidelity; stoning to death. In Deuteronomy we learn that, ““If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So, you shall purge the evil from your midst.” – (Deut. 22:23-24)
By the time of Joseph and Mary, the Rabbi’s had mitigated this penalty for infidelity, but it still would have been severe and humiliating. Certainly, being an unwed and pregnant woman would have caused Mary to be subject to considerable scorn, gossip, and shunning.
Under the circumstances of his not being the father of Mary’s unborn child, Joseph would have been within his legal rights to expect that Mary be penalized to the degree the Rabbi’s allowed, most likely being ostracized from her family, friends, and village.
But he does not demand that. We read that, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, [Joseph] planned to dismiss her quietly.” In other words, Mary is going to be sent away to a place where she is unknown and where - hopefully - she can have her baby in relative peace and safety. This will save Mary from public humiliation and disgrace.
I’m afraid that Joseph would not find much support today for his righteousness toward Mary in those segments of society that are swift to judge, and even swifter to condemn. In more archaic terms many would consider him to have been cuckolded; made a fool of by his cheating wife. In the patriarchal society he lived in – and which is still all too dominate in our own - Joseph would have been seen as being, “less of a man,” not only because he had been cheated on, but because of his compassionate response to Mary’s pregnancy. In more contemporary language he would be deemed a snowflake.
But is he really “less of a man” and a snowflake because of his response? And if so, why would Matthew describe him as being righteous.
The word describing Joseph as righteous in Greek is dikaios which literally means “just.” In the understanding of first century Hebrew culture, being “just” would have meant to live by the Law of Moses. In our own time we would call a just person who lived within the confines of society’s rules and regulations, a law abider. Well, Joseph acting justly in this case would have been a law abider. Which means he would have allowed Mary to be subjected to the penalty of the Law for her perceived infidelity. With this understanding Joseph is not just, because he does not follow the letter of the Law; in this case he is not a law abider. Yet Matthew calls him just.
He is not a law abider, yet just none the less, because an epiphany from an angel informs him that Mary’s is no ordinary pregnancy, and the child in her womb no ordinary human being. So, obedient to God, he compassionately takes Mary as his wife and serves as Jesus’ legal father, to the point of naming him Jesus, as the angel told him to.
In God’s eyes what Joseph did is true just behavior. Just behavior is to not abandon Mary to the cruelty’s society would have wrought on her; to not leave her alone, unprotected, afraid, and destitute; to nurture, feed and protect the child who will soon be born.
In this understanding of what it means to be just, Joseph is not rigidly following the letter of the law, but he is fulfilling the spirit of the law.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states, “ Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but fulfill.” (Matthew; 5:17) He then offers a series of “you have heard it was said . . . but I say to you” examples of what the authentic fulfilling of God’s law requires.
Joseph is the precursor of the behaviors Jesus says are required of us by God; Behaviors which do not violate the Law, but actually fulfill it . . . justly.
For instance, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . . For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43- 45a, 46-48)
In these sayings Jesus is teaching the necessity of having a heart to follow the laws of God justly. As citizens of the Realm of God we are held to a higher standard of behavior; a standard that completely supersedes our external conformity to a set of rules and regulations.
Joseph is Matthew’s original role-model of what that standard looks like in action. In the case of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph is just. The requirements of the law were not.
There’s a United Methodist Church in California that has a creche on their property this December. In that display the Holy Family - Joseph, Mary, and Jesus - are locked up in individual cages. It is powerful imagery, especially in light of what is occurring on our country’s southern border. It’s also a profound theological statement that reminds us the Holy Family became refugees seeking safety in a foreign country, as they flee the genocide of an irrational and power-hungry tyrant.
The rules and regulations that undergird our government to engage in this behavior of separating families and locking them in cages may be legal according to the law, but it’s certainly not just. Not in God’s eyes.
Certain so-called Christians have railed against this UMC church, calling the display blasphemous. There have been death threats against the pastor, and anonymous messages threatening to blow the display and the church up. Yet the true blasphemy in this case is in this threatened violence by alleged Christians. The true blasphemy is supporting the government’s actions and saying that God supports the ripping asunder of families and the mis-treatment of children to keep our country a majority white one. The rules and regulations may support these folks who believe our government is behaving justly, but what we are doing on our southern border in every way violates the justice of God.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to live by a different standard. “You have heard that it was said, ‘We need a wall on our southern border to protect our nation and keep brown people out. But I say to you, “show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor;” (Zechariah 7:9) you shall love one another as I have loved you.”
We are on the cusp of Christmas. As we celebrate this momentous act of God’s entering into human history, let us remember Joseph who modeled God’s just behavior as he prepared for the birth of the Savior. And let us never forget that it is in Jesus we - like Joseph - are called to live into the higher standards of God’s reign. In so doing we will truly be proclaiming the Good News of Jesus’ birth.