“A Righteous Man”
Psalm 80:1-7 and Matthew 1:18-25
December 22, 2019, Boeuff Presbyterian Church
Our text today gives us a different perspective than we usually associate with the stories of Christmas. The narrative we’re most familiar with is really a combination of all of the Gospels, the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, the trip to Bethlehem, the manger, and the magi, they’re all spread out throughout the gospels. But in Matthew’s account, the focus is not so much on Jesus’ birth itself, though it’s in there. There’s no trip to Bethlehem or shepherds in a field. What there is however, is a focus on Joesph and his experience of Mary’s surprising pregnancy.
Joseph’s mostly a background character in most depictions of the nativity of Jesus. He’s the one leading the donkey, the one inquiring with the innkeeper. He shows up in paintings of the Holy Family and in nativity sets, but we don’t know a whole lot about him in particular. After the story of Jesus staying behind in the temple when Jesus was 12, we really don’t hear about Joseph again.
We do know him a little though through the world that surrounded him. We know that his ancestral hometown was Bethlehem, but our narrative begins with him living 90 miles north in the town of Nazareth. Once thought to be rural, recent archaeological discoveries have pointed to a perhaps more established community. We know also that he was a carpenter or builder, likely as a part of the family business. He would’ve known how to read Hebrew, learning it in order to be Bar Mitzvahed. He would’ve spoke Aramaic and could’ve known Greek and Latin to engage in business.
We know also of his lineage, he was a descendent of the house of David. The first verses of the Gospel of Matthew giving us a detailed account of who all was included in that lineup. I’ve always found it curious that Joseph’s family tree is the one detailed out in the first part of the first chapter of Matthew, then we’re immediately told that this child to be born is not a biological descendent of Joseph at all, acting as a testament to the strength of God’s trust in Joseph as Jesus’ adoptive father.
By, eventually, accepting this role in Jesus’ life, Joseph would be giving up his right to a biological first born son, something that was of high importance in the patriarchal culture of that time. It is a big ask.
And so for a great many reasons, we hear of Joseph’s hesitation. Upon hearing about the pregnancy his first impulse is to “dismiss Mary quietly.” I can’t imagine how that would’ve actually worked out for her, as women of that time did not have the ability to own property on their own. She would’ve certainly struggled to get anyone else to marry her after giving birth to a child that appeared to not have a father.
It’s hard to fully understand what’s going on in the text from a twenty first century Christian perspective, but former Luther seminary New Testament Professor Arland J. Hultgren explains the context of their relationship a bit more clearly than is captured in simple translations of the text. He writes:
“Mary is said to be “engaged to Joseph” (1:18, NRSV), but the English word “engaged” hardly captures the meaning of the Greek word that it represents (mnesteuo). The variety of translations in some of the most widely known English versions show how translators have struggled to render the word appropriately. The RSV says that Mary “had been betrothed to Joseph.” The KJV says that she “was espoused to Joseph,” and the NIV says that she “was pledged to be married to Joseph.”
The problem with the word “engaged” (NRSV) is that an engagement can be broken off informally; there is no need for a legal action. But the situation of Mary and Joseph was more complicated than that. According to the custom of the day, there were two stages for a couple to go through in what can be called a marital process.
First came the betrothal (Hebrew kiddushin), a marriage contract, typically arranged by the parents, that could be broken only by divorce (cf. 1: 19, where apoluo is used, rendered as “divorce” in the RSV and NIV; the NRSV has “dismiss”).
That was followed by a second step (Hebrew nissu’in) considerably later (sometimes a year later), often including a marriage feast, after which the groom took his wife to his home. The verb paralambano (“to take”) in 1:20 and 1:24 can actually mean “to take home” one’s wife, thus referring to what happened after the second step. The drama of our text, however, takes place between the two events in the lives of this young couple. The first step had taken place; the second is in jeopardy.
Joseph’s reaction, when he hears that Mary is pregnant, is to suspect her of adultery, one of the grounds for divorce in Jewish law.1 In light of that, Joseph “planned to dismiss [RSV: “divorce”] her quietly” (NRSV). It may seem surprising to many in our day that Joseph is called “righteous” as he contemplates divorcing Mary in her time of need (1:19), but the accent must surely be upon the clause saying that he was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” wanting to keep the whole matter quiet. Moreover, law and the culture of the day would virtually say that Joseph had no alternative but to divorce Mary.”
Thank God, literally that Joseph took on this role as Jesus’ father, shaping all of human history by trusting the word of angels and of his wife, Mary.
And I think that is the message that Joseph’s narrative can have for us, that there is great value in being a background character in God’s great story. By looking for opportunities to trust God we can support God’s kingdom coming to fruition on earth as it is in heaven. Sometimes that looks like angels giving direct instruction, but more often than not it comes through trusting the direction God has given to others’ in our lives. We can support one another in the vocations God has given us, as we each endeavor to bear Christ into the world. Thanks be to God.