Joseph: An Unstable Righteousness
The time is coming very shortly, just a few days away, in fact, when our total attention will be focused on the Blessed Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus, the Messiah.
That attention is wholly appropriate to Christmas Eve and is the triumphant endpoint of our entire Advent preparation.
But there is one person who seems to fade into the background on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and that’s Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father.
In fact, fading into the background seems entirely in his nature. He seems like a behind-the-scenes type of guy.
We all know them—these people who are the salt-of-the-earth, hard-working, faithful souls whose quiet devotion to the simple, humble things that have to be done keeps the church and the family going.
But today in our gospel story he is dragged out into the limelight, and if we spend a little time with Joseph, we see that he is a man of profound spiritual depth, someone from whom we can learn a lot.
We read today that Joseph was a righteous man.
When he finds out that Mary is pregnant and he knows the child is not his because they are engaged but not married yet, he would have been well within his rights to call her out publicly.
After the child was born, she could have been executed by stoning.
A man’s honor was his most prized possession in that day and age.
As strange as it seems to us today, in that society and even in some other societies today, a man’s honor is determined by the “purity” of the women’s bodies with whom he is associated.
So in this context, the only way Joseph’s honor, the mark by which he earns respect and his place in society, can be restored, is by Mary’s death to erase her shame and the shame she has imputed to him by getting pregnant outside of wedlock.
So we see now how generous Joseph is to shield her from public shame and execution. For his kindness he is named a righteous man.
He has every right to put this unpleasant incident behind him and forget about the girl who made a mistake and tried to cover it up with a story about a visit from an angel.
Even though Joseph was going to keep the incident quiet, Nazareth was a small town.
Everyone would have known anyway.
He could save face on the surface, but in reality Mary has made Joseph’s position in society precarious even though in this hypothetical scenario they’re not getting married.
He will have fallen a few notches in the hierarchy because he was associated with this fallen woman, and it may be more difficult for him to find someone else to marry.
Remember, in this society people were not getting married because they loved each other.
Marriages were arranged as beneficial property deals and political alliances between large extended families.
So Joseph does not even have the motivation of a deep love built over long years of relationship and dating with Mary.
They have not spent much time together. She is closer to an acquaintance than a fiancée in terms of how we think about relationships today.
Now that we understand a bit more what Joseph already had to lose in this scenario just for letting Mary go quietly, for not exposing her to public disgrace, consider what happens next.
Joseph does not have the luxury of an in-person visit from an angel during the daytime, loud and clear, like Mary did.
Joseph instead gets a dream.
Think now what it would mean for him to take that dream seriously, so seriously that he defies all the conventions of manhood and propriety in his society and takes the pregnant Mary as his wife.
I wish I could say differently, but I have a feeling that if I dreamed that God was telling me to do something that went against what I had been taught my entire life plus the advice of everyone I knew, I would probably think I’d eaten something strange for dinner the night before and ignore it.
But Joseph didn’t ignore it.
He knew that God had spoken to him and he was true to God’s commandment.
Mary was a rule-breaker and convention-defier too. That’s part of what I love about this incredibly brave and bold couple.
Mary broke the rules of what it meant to be a woman in her society by taking on power: she agreed to the angel’s proposal without consulting any male relatives, she risked shame and even death by getting pregnant outside of wedlock, she claimed her child as God’s holy blessing and not a shameful mistake, she traveled alone to her cousin Elizabeth and celebrated with her, and she expected her marriage to Joseph to go forward because she believed God would make a way for her.
Joseph broke the rules of what it meant to be a man in his society by giving up power: he shielded Mary from shame and disgrace even before he received the message from God, he trusted his dream over custom and even common sense, he married a woman pregnant not by himself, he took on the child who was not biologically his and raised him with love and devotion.
It is easy to see in the gospels that Jesus relates to women in a way that was unusual for his time.
We see him interact with them as equals in the stories like the Samaritan woman at the well.
We see him value them outside the perceived purity of their bodies or lack thereof in the story of the woman caught in adultery who he stops from being stoned and killed.
We see him value them in their struggles and cherish them in their pain in stories like the hemorrhaging woman.
Part of that unique attitude toward women is from his divine nature, but part of it is from his human nature.
And who taught Jesus to be a man in his human nature? His father, Joseph.
Joseph’s strength of character and bold courage that he paired with thoughtful gentleness and profound spiritual depth provide a model of masculinity that we admire two thousand years later.
We don’t know the aftermath of his actions by taking Mary as his wife among the townspeople in Nazareth, but it’s safe to assume that ugly gossip probably continued for years.
Joseph didn’t care.
He loved his wife and child and did whatever it took to make them safe and happy, including following another dream to take them all the way to Egypt because his infant son was in danger from Herod.
One of the most outstanding qualities of Joseph was his ability to understand that God may be calling him to something completely opposite to what he originally believed was the right thing to do.
Joseph was called a righteous man for planning to dismiss Mary quietly, and then God told him to take her as his wife.
What happens when what it means to be righteous changes?
What happens when we know the right thing to do in any given situation, but then God somehow changes what it means to do the right thing?
Can that ever happen in our own lives?
That’s a terrifying thought, to think that moral conduct and ethical decision-making could be that fluid and inconstant.
But Joseph had a more solid ground than even his own moral convictions: he trusted in God.
He had committed himself to obeying God no matter what, so when things got sticky with Mary and then got even crazier with angels and dreams, he had a solid rock to cling to in the storm.
He trusted God to make a way forward for him, that even though he could barely see one step in front of him, God would not lead him off a cliff but would keep him on solid ground.
Most of the time, righteous moral conduct will adhere to the rules we have learned and the standards we have been taught.
Many times standing by our commitments no matter how we’re being influenced by our surroundings is a moral victory.
But our God is a revolutionary God.
Our God is a God who works through misfits and screw-ups and rule-breakers, and we may find that opening ourselves to be vessels of grace is going to require us to go against everyone around us at some point.
Most of the time the tides of justice begin to turn by one person planting himself or herself like a stubborn little pebble that just won’t move–and the water begins to shift.
Being that little pebble buffered by the waves of convention and expectation on every side is not an easy calling, but it is a brave and noble one.
Joseph didn’t receive reams of prophecy like Isaiah or Jeremiah.
He didn’t found a nation like Abraham or lead an entire people to freedom like Moses.
He didn’t triumph in war like Joshua or slay a giant like David.
He believed his dreams of God more than the teachings of society about manhood, married an already pregnant girl and loved her child, and changed the world.
It almost makes me want to pray, God, challenge my conviction of righteousness.
Send me the chance to serve the kingdom because I believe in the dream of you more than the reality of the world.
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