A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Advent 2 ~ Matthew 1:18-25
I must confess that I am fascinated by the character of Joseph as written in the Gospel According to Matthew. I’m going to spend the next few minutes diving deeply into who he was and why I think his story is so important. I’ll say a few things that will likely upset and frustrate some of you. That’s how theology works. And while I’m potentially dismantling some long-standing interpretations of some of our most sentimentally tender texts it’s not with any expectation that my interpretation should replace it for all time. All theology must be challenged – both the classic versions and my contemporary innovations (which aren’t really all that innovative, nor unique, but they still will come across as provocative to many faithful folks). And so, with all that jibber-jabber out of the way, let’s get to it.
There is absolutely nothing in the text of Matthew’s gospel that says that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, and that is my belief.
There’s also nothing in the text that precludes an immaculate conception – so if that’s your thing, this scripture could be interpreted to support that.
However, it can also plainly be interpreted to not support it.
So it becomes a matter of one’s theology. I come down on the side of Joseph as Jesus’ actual, biological father. And here’s why I think that really matters.
It matters because it makes the story real instead of a fairy tale, or like one of the many ancient myths circulating at the time of Jesus in which heroic figures (like Moses, or David) were assigned miraculous conception stories.
It matters because it makes the characters human instead of idealized fictions.
We’ve all seen dozens of movies or Christmas pageants in which the story of Jesus’ conception is portrayed, and just about all of them show Mary, filled with angst, coming to Joseph with the news of a miraculous pregnancy, and Joseph flying off the handle in anger and then eventually coming to terms with it and stoically helping Mary through it all. It’s very powerful, dramatic stuff – and it’s pure fiction.
None of that is actually in the scripture.
In Luke’s gospel, Mary is visited by an angel who announces her pregnancy. To interpret that as the angel actually impregnating her is both a leap, and more than a little creepy. And if God just snaps God’s fingers and she’s pregnant then that profoundly diminishes Jesus’ humanity.
In Luke, Joseph is mentioned a grand total of two times around the birth narrative – once to say he was engaged to Mary who was expecting a child, and once to say he was with her at the manger. That’s it. No big dramatic encounter.
In Matthew’s gospel the news also happens in an offhand and very undramatic way.
Matthew 1:8 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
Again, that’s it.
All that wonderful angsty stuff in those biblical movies is just not there.
It makes for a great story, but it’s not based at all in scripture.
So let’s look carefully at what’s actually in the scripture passage, and as we do I hope we’ll get a much deeper appreciation for Joseph, and a fresh perspective on an old tale.
First, we have to deal with the infamously misinterpreted words – engaged, and virgin.
Today, to be ‘engaged’ means to declare an intention to make the relationship legally binding in the future. It’s a declaration of an intention. “Let’s get engaged – we’ll make it legal someday!” For us, we aren’t legally married until we do the ceremony, say the words, and sign the license.
Not so in Jesus’ time.
The engagement, more properly called a betrothal, was a legally binding thing. To become betrothed the groom (or his family) would make a symbolic journey to the bride’s home to pay the bride’s family a dowry to secure the bonding of the families. Marriage was very much a transaction, and sadly, women were not afforded the same rights and powers as men. Upon payment the couple was legally betrothed and breaking a betrothal was essentially a divorce, and it incurred penalties and shame.
Here’s the part many of us may not know.
Once betrothed the groom would return to his own home (or his father’s home) and prepare a place for her. There was a significant period of time, usually a year (but if the bride was quite young it would be much longer), in which they would live apart, as legally engaged people. Then, after the appropriate time had passed (and it varied by custom and region, apparently), the groom would journey to the bride’s home and bring her back to his home in a bridal procession, then a short marriage ceremony would be held, then the marriage was consummated, and then a 7 day wedding party happened.
So. Engagement was marriage without cohabitation.
And, believe it or not, lots of folks even way back then were just as tempted as modern day people are to maybe not wait for all the official things to happen before they, well, made things happen. If you know what I mean?!
v.18 When Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
Found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
That’s it, in Matthew. From. Not even an angel visitation scene. Just a ‘from’.
You can read a lot into that, or read very little into it. It’s up to you.
For me, if Mary’s pregnancy had to be miraculous surely Matthew would have given it more than just the passing word ‘from’.
I don’t want to belabour this but the word translated as from has several meanings and a specific note about how it should not be translated with the narrow concept of the word by (as in ‘due to the direct action of’).
So, a child not ‘by’ the Holy Spirit, but ‘from’ the Holy Spirit.
I don’t know about you, but if you have kids, don’t you trust deep in your heart that they are from the Holy Spirit? Aren’t they a sacred blessing?
Why am I making such a big deal out of Joseph’s paternity here? Because what happens next reveals so much about his character, and serves as a lesson for us all.
Matthew 1:19 (Mary’s) husband Joseph (remember, they’re legally bound), being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
According to their laws, as I understand them (and yes, there’s some dispute even among scholars about exactly which laws were in place at that time), having discovered his betrothed was pregnant, Joseph had every right to divorce her, and possibly even have her stoned. From what I can discern it doesn’t even matter whether the man did the deed himself or if it was adultery, he could legally, and righteously, claim she was ‘damaged goods’ and reject her – and everyone would have thought he did the right and honourable thing. But because Joseph was a good guy he decided to do it quietly and not bring more shame and dishonour upon her. I know that sounds completely abhorrent to us, but we’re talking about an ancient culture with different circumstances.
Matthew 1:20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream
Ok, can you picture it? Joseph has thought hard about his situation and has resolved to divorce Mary. He has every right, and he’s decided to do it. He takes a deep breath, nods his head, and lays down to sleep knowing he’s acting according to the law.
And then, in the night, when his mind is quiet and not racing, when the world is not noisily clamouring for his attention, when his guard is down, Joseph has an encounter with the Presence of God in the form of an angel.
And the angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
(The name Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Yeshua (Joshua) which means ‘God saves’.)
Why would Joseph be afraid to take Mary as his wife? Because doing so meant he would share in her shame and disgrace. And, (and this is my interpretation) doing so would be admitting that he was, in fact, the one who fathered the child. In other words, by going through with the marriage Joseph was going way above and beyond the requirements of their law and their culture.
You may say he’s just being a man of conscience. True, but I’m saying that the law did not require that of him. And for him to go outside the law and act this way is a remarkable expression of courage and faith.
Inspired by a deeply spiritual encounter with the Presence of God, Joseph’s heart was broken open and he experienced a transformation.
His eyes were opened in a new way, and he realized that love and compassion are supposed to trump the letter of the law, and that by writing Mary off he was actually diminishing himself.
Next we get Matthew’s effort to do his main thing – to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. So we get a quote from Isaiah 7, and we get our second unfortunately translated word.
Matthew 1:22-23 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet (Isaiah): “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, ‘God is with us.’”
I’m not going to spend long on this – it’s been argued to death.
When we hear the word ‘virgin’ we immediately assign a meaning to it. To us, a virgin is anyone who has not had sex. Both ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek had specific words for that, and those words are not used here.
The words used – almah in Hebrew and parthenos in Greek – simply refer to a young female who is old enough to get pregnant but has not yet gotten pregnant. So, literally, virgin here means someone getting pregnant for the first time.
That’s all it has ever meant.
Our modern English understanding has assigned all sorts of extra meaning to it.
So let’s go back to what is there and why it’s so valuable for us.
Matthew 1:24-25 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Joseph went to bed committed to a righteous and legal course of action.
He went to sleep with his mind made up.
He woke up changed.
He had a spiritual awakening – and it changed everything!
Joseph went to bed at peace with his decision according to the law – and he awoke in the much deeper peace of the light and love of God.
Imagine the story if Joseph had rejected this spiritual awakening.
Mary is divorced and disgraced.
Jesus may or may not have even been born, and certainly would never have been raised in the way he was – which gave him the foundation for what he would do.
This is all a very human thing here.
Sure, it could be a miraculous immaculate conception. But it doesn’t have to be.
And if it isn’t – if it’s a messy, human, earthy thing just like you or I could get tangled up in, then for me it has infinitely more power to teach me something about myself, and my faith.
Jesus is not Superman masquerading as Clark Kent. Jesus was profoundly shaped by deeply spiritual and loving parents – Mary and Joseph. If Joseph wasn’t open to God’s presence Jesus doesn’t become the ‘one who saves’ through his teaching and his life.
Instead of being an afterthought, and someone who is virtually ignored in our tradition, we ought to be holding Joseph up as the poster child of faithfulness and transformation.
One final thing. I’m taking great pains to emphasize how ordinary Joseph was, because I want us to grasp how extraordinary and consequential even ordinary people’s spirituality is. Instead of doing just what was expected of him, or what was required by the culture, Joseph went above and beyond and embraced a higher love.
Joseph risked everything.
He leaned into shame and disgrace when he could have taken an easier path and avoided it.
He sacrificed his comfort and reputation for something deeper, something much more valuable, something More.
He started by settling for peace of mind – but in the end he embraced peace of heart – something that transformed not only his life, but the lives of every single person in this room, thousands of years later.
The spirituality of ordinary people, people like you, like me, like Joseph, matters.
Going above and beyond matters. Taking responsibility for your actions, matters.
Embracing the light and love of God, letting it transform you, and then acting on it, even when it carries hard consequences, matters – and it can change the world – maybe not in the same way that Joseph’s faith did, but in ways that really matter, here and now.
How great would our world be, and how awesome would our churches be, if we could all be more like Joseph!