Sunday, December 09, 2012

There's Something About Joseph (Matthew 1:18-24)

The title is a little bit of a cheat. The movie from a few years ago was called There's Something About Mary, and it didn't have anything to do with the Nativity or the birth of Jesus.

Which sometimes happens in reverse during Advent when we focus on the story -- because we spend a lot of time considering Mary and her agreement to bear God's son. And then we focus a lot on Mary and the baby Jesus. None of these are bad things to consider. Mary's obedience in the face of serious risk to herself and her reputation is a good model for us and offers us reasons to admire her character. And when a baby is born, we focus on the connection between the child and the mother, because physically that connection is a natural one to see.

But leaving Joseph out of things, even by accident, is not a productive path in studying how to follow God, because he offers us a good model as well. His actions also speak of a character worth our admiration and worth emulating.

Like Mary, Joseph learns of the coming child's divine origins from a heavenly messenger. But his messenger appears to him in a dream and happens after the conception has already taken place. Which means he has to deal with the reality of a fianceƩ apparently pregnant by another man. In our day and time that kind of infidelity is still looked down on (although there's probably a Showtime series in development that will help us accept it as a part of the "new normal" in behavior). But in Joseph and Mary's culture, the matter was much more serious.

People who committed adultery shamed two families -- their own and the family of the spouse to whom they were unfaithful. They insulted their in-laws with their disrespect of their spouses and they shamed their own family with their oath-breaking and lack of self-control. Today we read now and again of societies so backward they feel only death can cleanse these stains. These "honor killings" happen when someone -- usually a woman; remember these cultures are backward and consider women the problem -- has acted in some way that's considered to be the same thing as adultery, even if actual adultery never happens.

The law of Moses did include the penalty of death for adultery, although it didn't single out the woman. The man was also liable to be executed. Joseph, on learning that Mary was pregnant, could have publicly accused her of adultery with her pregnancy as his evidence, combined with his testimony that they had never consummated their marriage. She would have been stoned to death; which means people would have thrown rocks at her until she died. That was rarely quickly done, and Mary faced an awful death. Joseph's honor was considered to have a right to such a death for her.

But Joseph doesn't think that way. Although I'm sure that he feels shock, hurt and anger at this news, he apparently comes to understand that Mary's death won't heal anything that's gone wrong for him. We might say Joseph's honor is strong enough it needs no bloodshed to remain intact, at least in his view of it. So he planned to quietly end the betrothal, perhaps thinking that Mary can then marry the father of her child and things can come to an end.

And that's when the angel comes to him in a dream. Once Joseph has decided that mercy is more important than justice and judgment, God tells him what has actually happened: Mary's pregnancy is not from adultery but from the Holy Spirit. Marrying her will not make him unrighteous in God's sight and he will not risk God's displeasure if he does.

The messenger could have come when Joseph's dominant feelings were hurt and anger (as we know must have happened at some point in the story, whether Matthew describes them or not). The news of the Holy Spirit's role would have stayed that anger and healed that hurt, I imagine. But they might have also prompted Joseph to resent what had happened to him -- he was the only one onstage who didn't realize he was playing a part: "Would have been nice to have known about this before I agreed to the wedding, ya think?"

Either way, we see God's messenger come to Joseph after he has decided to take the path not of vengeance or justice, but of mercy. Only after he has decided he can be at some kind of peace with what has happened does the angel tell him everything's OK.

We know God does come to people in times of despair and offer hope, and we read about his words to angry people calming them with his counsel. But sometimes the right time for God's presence -- his grace -- isn't in the middle of something but afterwards. We may not know when or how it happens. To us, it may seem completely unexpected when it does.

But according to what God knows, it happens at exactly the right time. Joseph's dream might have happened at a time when it might have seemed more useful to him, at least as we read the story. Instead, it happened when he demonstrated the kind of character God wanted in the man who would help raise his son; the man whose image would appear in the human mind of that son when he said the word "Father."

God is, after all, the God of all things. Including timing.

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