Thursday, December 11, 2014


Whenever and in whatever manner the Christmas story is told, there's a character of whom we don't hear a lot.  Oh, he's there, but he usually doesn't seem to have an important role.  In the nativity scene he's seen bowing piously before the manger; in the pageants he's seen leading the donkey on which Mary sits, or he's knocking at the door of the inn.
No, Joseph doesn't seem that important.  In the Gospels, he's not around much after the Christmas story, except for a few disparaging remarks about "the carpenter." And yet he is the main character in Matthew's version of the Christmas story. The first 17 verses of the New Testament give the royal genealogy of Jesus through Joseph - even though Joseph was not Jesus' biological father.
After the genealogy Matthew begins his story with a brief account of Joseph's dilemma:  "Now the birth story of Jesus Christ was like this:  when His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph - before they came together - she was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit.  And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wishing to put her to public shame, decided to divorce her privately" (Matthew 1:18, 19).

Joseph and Mary were not simply "engaged" as many modern translations tell us.  Betrothal under the Mosaic Law meant that they were actually legally married; the bride price had been paid and vows had been exchanged.  Only one thing remained undone during this period - the actual consummation of the marriage through sexual union. (This was different of course from our modern "enlightened" custom, where sex comes first.
There's a lot packed into these two verses.  I've tried to put myself in Joseph's place and imagine his emotional reaction to the discovery that his beloved was pregnant and he wasn't the father.  Perhaps the discovery occurred when Mary returned from her three-month visit with her cousin Elizabeth as related in Luke's Gospel.  Perhaps she was beginning to show.  I can imagine the dialogue as she approaches.
Joseph:  "It's my pure precious Mary, returning at last.  It's so wonderful to see you again.  I've missed you so.  You look so good.  But Mary, you've changed!  You seem to have - uh - gained a little weight."
Mary:  "I'm pregnant Joseph."
Joseph:  "You're pregnant?  You're kidding right?"
Mary:  "No, I'm pregnant ..."
Joseph:  "Mary!  No!  How can this be?  How could this happen?  You've always been so pure!  What have you done?  You've broken your vows!  Who...?  What...?  Why ...?"
Mary:  "Joseph, please calm down.  I'm still a virgin."
Joseph:  "Mary, that's nonsense!  How can you be pregnant and still a virgin?"
Mary:  "The Holy Spirit came upon me and the power of the Most High overshadowed me.  And the Child within me is holy.  He's the Son of God!"

I can feel the confusion and the conflicting emotions in Joseph and can hear his voice rising with every word he speaks.

Joseph:  "Mary, stop saying crazy things.  That's impossible!"
Mary:  "Nothing is impossible with God!"
Joseph:  "I know that!  Of course, I know that!  I've said it myself many times.  But God doesn't work this way!  Not since Adam has a man come into this world without a human father!       But what am I doing arguing theology with you?"
Mary:  "Please Joseph, let me tell you how this happened.  You see the angel Gabriel came to me and ..."
Joseph:  "An angel?  Mary, you know angels don't speak to us anymore!  That only happened in the Bible!"
Mary:  "Please, let me explain ..."
Joseph:  "Mary, you know that I love you!  But it's clear that you have sinned horribly - against God and against me.  Your adultery is bad enough.  Don't make matters worse by making up this lie.  Don't blaspheme God by blaming Him for your sin!"
Mary:  "Joseph ..."
Joseph:  "Mary, Mary - please stop talking.  I'll have to divorce you.  I could have you stoned for adultery but I can't do that.  Just go away.  You've ruined our lives!”

Matthew continues his narrative, telling us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and explained matters.  Joseph does take Mary as his wife but the marriage is not consummated until after the birth of Jesus.

Most of the rest of the story is familiar and can be found in the following verses.  But one thing about the angel's speech may tell us a bit more about Joseph.  The angel told him, "Don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife ..." (verse 20).

Why did the angel tell him this?  Was fear a factor in Joseph's reaction to Mary's condition?  Undoubtedly he felt the pressure on himself from different directions.  We're told that he was "righteous".  Not self-righteous, but genuinely righteous in the sense of walking with God and following God's laws.  He clearly had a love for Mary.  We may suppose that, knowing that both he and Mary were of the line of David, he had hoped that one day their son might turn out to be the Messiah.

And yet if he took Mary as his wife the shame of their first son's being illegitimate would haunt them.  Hopes for the future would be dashed.

We don't know what became of Joseph beyond the first few chapters of Matthew's and Luke's Gospels.  Apparently he died and left Mary a widow by the time Jesus entered His public ministry.  But if Joseph feared shame, the shame would follow his step-Son until Jesus' death.  We read that years later, some of those who opposed Jesus would say to Him, "We weren't born of fornication ..." (John 8:41).  Perhaps that question about Jesus, "Isn't this the carpenter's son?" (Matthew 13:55) was more than simply a reference to Jesus' lowly birth.  There may have been more to it than that.  Perhaps the implication was, "Isn't this the illegitimate child, who that carpenter took for his own.  What a disgrace!"

There are many places in this world, even in this country, where followers of the carpenter's Son may experience fear, shame and disgrace.  There are even places where Christ's followers fear for their lives.  Joseph overcame his fears by simply surrendering himself to the will of God.