Scriptures: Genesis 12:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
Today, as we look at the Gospel of Matthew, we get to see someone who really doesn't get a whole lot of press, as it were, in the Scriptures, and that is Joseph. He has no speaking parts. Even in this passage, he says nothing. He must have been the strong silent type.
But Joseph was critical to God's plan for salvation. And I want to bring to your attention some of the traits and practices the Joseph had, that made him such a unique individual, and someone that we can look to and emulate, not just during this time of Advent and Christmas but even beyond that.
Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, or “betrothed.” But before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. The way the Jews did this is they generally had a one-year-long betrothal. They were considered married during that time.
If Joseph had died, she would get an inheritance. If, as is seen later on in the passage, they chose to separate, then they had to go through a divorce. During this time, she would usually live with her parents, but would be spending a lot of time at Joseph's home, to learn – generally from his mom – how to take care of him properly.
So we look at this time, and Mary was young. She was a maiden. And she was found to be pregnant. As far as the people are concerned, and as far as Joseph was concerned, initially, there's only one reason why that could happen. That was that she was unfaithful to Joseph.
Or that Joseph had broken his own vows, in terms of the betrothal, because he wasn't supposed to consummate it until they actually had the wedding ceremony. So what you have is either someone who is an adulteress, which could mean that she could be stoned, and in fact that's what is called for in the law, or Joseph had no self-control.
Now this was a small town. Nazareth only had about 300 people in it. Everybody knew everybody. (You guys wouldn't know about that.) And Joseph was a carpenter. He had a small business, that he ran himself.
He had a reputation in the town. It says he was a righteous man. He is, by the way, one of only two people that are called righteous in the Scriptures. He very definitely followed the law. Some translations say he was a “just” man.
He was very good at following the law that had been set out, the Law of Moses. He was somebody that showed goodness to his neighbor, taking care of them, taking care of his family. He did all the right things. As far as the people were concerned, you couldn't have a better role model.
Until now. If he had no self-control, then that just shoots down his reputation entirely. If he had – as he did – married Mary anyway, when she was an adulteress (as far as people knew), then he would be seen as a fool. What man takes spoiled goods, as it were? Remember they had a lower opinion of women than we do today.
His reputation would be shot. His business was probably impacted negatively. His place in the local synagogue would probably be gotten rid of. He would have to move back. I know that we start sitting in the back, and I have to encourage people to move forward, but in those days they sat in the front, and then as you went back, you were further away from the teacher, and so that was a sign of not being educated and not wanting to learn. (So if you all come and sit forward, then I'll know that you really want to hear what I have to say.)
But Joseph was a just a man. And he was a righteous man. And he chose then, he did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace, which would lead to stoning. So he had in mind to divorce her quietly. They could do that.
Again, since they were already betrothed, they were considered married by the law, and he had to divorce her. But they also had a rule that he could write his own writ of divorce, and in front of two witnesses, say, “I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee,” and she had to go back home to her parents.
Again, their view on women was they were second-class citizens. The woman couldn't do the same thing to the man, unless he was actually an adulterer and they could prove it.
So he was going to put her aside quietly, and just send her back to her parents. He was actually doing her a favor. He was showing compassion to her. He had every right to be angry. Wouldn't you be angry if you had a spouse and you found they were cheating on you, even before you had a chance to be with them?
As he was considering this, it says an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.” Now this is subtle, but I find this interesting. What is the first thing that angels usually say when they meet a human being? “Do not be afraid.” In other words, “Don't be afraid of me, the angel.”
Joseph was apparently not afraid when he sees the angel. Because what the angel tells him is don't be afraid to take Mary home. He doesn't say, “Fear not, for I have a message for you from God.” He shows up in Joseph's dream, much as he did to Abraham and Jacob and many of the others, and says, “Don't be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
Now again, as the liturgist noted, if he'd gone around and told people Mary's baby had been conceived by the Holy Spirit, most people would have thought he was a nutcase. If Mary tried to tell that to Joseph, before the dream, he probably would have thought she was a nutcase.
The Holy Spirit though, in Jewish tradition and understanding, did interact with people, and exercise power over them. Every prophet would say, “Thus saith the Lord” or “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.” King David, who was known to have the Spirit of God with him, did many things.
So when an angel tells you, “the child is conceived by the Holy Spirit,” then it's not so far-fetched. But there's still the question of, What about me, Joseph? What about my reputation? What about my desires? What about my business? What about providing for her later on? What about me?
The angel says, “She'll give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus” – that is, Joshua – “because he will save his people from their sins.” That is great. What a message! They've been waiting for the Messiah to come. The saving people from their sins was actually kind of secondary, because it said that he would make everybody perfect, so there would be no more sin the world, so therefore he would save them from their sins, from their perspective.
So Joseph has this measures that the Messiah is coming. But still, What am I supposed to do? You're telling me that Mary is giving birth to the Messiah? Assuming that she's giving a normal birth, that means it's a baby. What am I supposed to do with the Son of God?
We know Mary asked herself similar things. But she, in her Magnificat, pledges herself, as she considers these things, and sets herself to fulfill God's desires.
Joseph doesn't say anything, but this had to be running through his head. Joseph wasn't apparently much of a speaker. But it becomes obvious that he was a doer. And let me tell you some of the things that he did. There couldn't have been a better father – other than God the Father Himself – for Jesus.
First of all, he said yes to God, as noted in our Advent reading today. He took Mary home with him, though he didn't have to. He took care of her, and when the time came to go to Bethlehem, he took her with him, as his wife.
After the baby was born, and the wise men came, he had a dream, again, and he was directed to go to Egypt. Now Egypt is a lot further from Jerusalem than Nazareth is from Bethlehem. And yet he did it. He packed up his stuff, rooted up whatever business he'd set up in Bethlehem for the last couple of years, went down to Egypt, took care of the family down there, for another six to seven years, and brought Jesus back, when he was about eight years old, to Nazareth.
Remember. Small town. Long memories. Even if there were other brothers and sisters by now – and we know that Jesus had brothers and sisters – so Joseph came back as a family man, they would have remembered what happened with the first one.
We know that they remembered, because later on in Jesus' life and ministry, some of the Pharisees sort of mock him or try to discredit him as someone who doesn't even know who his own father is, when he talks about them not knowing their Father in heaven.
They know he's what they would consider to be a bastard, an illegitimate child. So even though Joseph brought him back, he brought him back to Nazareth, his home town. Joseph had to put up with the social ostracism, the difficulties in starting the business up again. He took care of his son and the rest of his family. He brought him up right, taught him the business. He was a good carpenter, a good tekton.
Joseph apparently taught him compassion, because Jesus showed compassion, and it wasn't just because he was deific – that is, he had a nature of God in him – he showed it humanly as well, in his ability to cry with people, and to have compassion on them when they were hungry.
Joseph taught Jesus the Scriptures. Jesus wasn't born knowing the Bible. I mean, yes his godly side did, but he had sort of locked that away while he was incarnate. But we know, from Luke, that when he was twelve years old, he was in the temple, when his parents lost him for a couple of days. He was in the temple, and he was teaching the rabbis. He was responding to them, having dialogue with them, and they were all amazed, and afterwards Luke says that he grew in wisdom and in the Spirit.
Now you grow in those two things as you mature in your faith, and we know that you mature in your faith in two different ways. One is experience, and the other is study.
So Joseph taught Jesus all the basics that he needed to know. Presumably even after he died, than Jesus continued his studies, so the by the time he was thirty, and he knew completely and totally who he was, and what God the Father wanted from him, he was ready to go out in the ministry. He was always able to respond to his critics with the Word, with Scriptures. Even to the devil himself – it says, “Scripture says,” that's how he would respond.
So Joseph came up to the challenge, as he taught Jesus how to be the best human being that he could be, and gave him the room for his godly nature to come forth and develop.
Now it's hard enough raising kids that are just human. We know that Jesus didn't sin, even as a kid. Though he probably exasperated his parents a few times. But he still had to learn. He still had to grow. And it was Joseph that provided those opportunities.
So this man who says nothing did a whole lot. He did something. And that something was everything, for Christ to become the man that he was.
So when you read the story, yes, we want to appreciate Mary. Absolutely. We don't need to venerate her as some of the Catholics do. But we certainly want to understand and praise her for what she did and what she went through. But we also need to recognize Joseph. And we need to understand the challenge that he had, so that we can give praise to God.
God knew. It was all in God's hands. And that means we can trust God too. He will provide whatever we need, be it a mentor, be it someone to mentor, be an opportunity to learn the Scriptures. Or, although it can be painful at times, much as it was for them, an experience to help us grow in wisdom.
It's a lifelong trust, that we need to place in God. And when we do so, then we make an impact beyond what we could ever know. I doubt Joseph ever thought, even knowing his son was the Savior, that he would be memorialized forever in the Word of God. I don't think that was one of his concerns.
You'll make the same kind of impact with others, if you're faithful, and follow Him.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.