18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
He was a man faced with a detestable duty. He was a man of compassion, even tenderness. But he was also a man of honor, a man of a stern code. His obedience to the Law was unwavering. The moment he learned that his wife was pregnant he knew that it was the end of their betrothal, and potentially even the end of her life.
It was two millennia ago in the Roman-occupied land of Judea. Joseph’s wife, Mary, was going to have a baby and it was not his. Compassion, honor, and duty dueled within Joseph. He could not pretend there was no problem. She obviously had betrayed him. The whole town of Nazareth was watching.
It would have been easy for Joseph to put Mary through the spectacle of public divorce, which would have disgraced and humiliated Mary before the entire community. But Joseph was both righteous and compassionate, so he decided to send her away quietly.
It had to have been a tough decision. It wasn’t that Joseph was head over heels in love with Mary. In the arranged marriages of his day, it’s quite possible that Joseph did not even know Mary very well. Joseph’s conflict of conscience was likely not about what to do to one he loved, but over the ever-present tension of how to do what the Law required.
To say that Joseph was a righteous man meant that he adhered to the Law. Righteousness and religious lawfulness were the same thing to Judean Jews. As a righteous man, Joseph knew he could not pretend Mary had not transgressed, and transgression it could only be since Mary was pregnant and Joseph knew he was not involved. As a righteous man, Joseph could not be blamed for choosing to have Mary disgraced before the community, for the Law did authorize at least that. Joseph’s crisis was that his righteousness impelled him to do the right thing by the Law, but he didn’t like it. Finally, Joseph decided Mary would have to pay the price for infidelity as the Law required, but on his terms. He would break his betrothal to Mary and send her away without fanfare, leaving her to fend for herself. Doubtless from Mary’s point of view that would have been unpleasant, but she would not be subjected to public humiliation.
After Joseph had made up his mind, he dreamed of an angel. The angel filled Joseph in on the rest of the story that Mary’s unborn child was from the Holy Spirit.
In Joseph’s dream the angel gave Joseph two instructions. First was to take Mary home as his wife and second to adopt Mary’s child as his own, giving him the name Jesus.
The Son of God receives an ordinary name, uniting him with the people of this world rather than separating him from them. In Hebrew the name is Yeshua, which means “God helps.” In Joseph’s day, when a Jewish man gave a name to the child born to his wife, he was announcing that the child was his own. Maybe Joseph’s and Mary’s families knew that Joseph was not the baby’s natural father, maybe they didn’t. It didn’t matter. When Joseph publicly named the baby Jesus, he was also giving to Jesus his own identity, his own lineage, and that settled that. Jesus then could truly be said to be of the line of David, because Joseph was of David’s line and Joseph announced Jesus as his own son. “This child belongs to me, this child is my child,” is what Joseph proclaimed when he named the child Jesus.
Joseph gets the short end of the Christmas stick. Mary gets a lot more play. Did you know that Joseph never speaks in the Gospels? Joseph hears, Joseph dreams, Joseph acts and Joseph obeys, but there is no record of even one syllable he uttered. Mary is the one with the speaking part. Mary is the one of whom Michelangelo carved the Pieta, one of the most beautiful statues ever made. Her role is the most sought after in Christmas pageants.
In 1993, my wife Cathy played Mary in the Christmas pageant at our church in Virginia. They asked her to play Mary because they wanted an actress who was gracious and beautiful and devout. Also, because they needed a woman with a newborn infant, our two-month-old daughter, Elizabeth, to play the baby Jesus. Elizabeth and Cathy, Jesus and Mary, were a package deal, couldn’t get one without the other. But any guy off the street could have played Joseph. In fact, the associate pastor asked me, “Did you want to play Joseph, or should we get a man from the choir to play him?” I said I would but talk about feeling like a fifth wheel … .
Which made me think: We should ponder theologically where Joseph fits in with God’s redemption of humankind. Joseph’s adoption of Jesus is not insignificant. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul says that through Jesus Christ we are adopted as children of God. It is a common and emphatic theme with Paul. Paul calls followers of Christ sons of God and children of God, and let’s be fair, if Paul were alive today, he would say daughters of God, too.
Before God adopted us as children of God in the family of Christ, God sent his son to be adopted by Joseph into the family of humankind. Jesus really is Immanuel, God with us. We really are brothers and sisters with Christ and through Christ with one another. Joseph affirmed on behalf of all humanity that God belongs with us.
What if Joseph had said no to the angel and had sent Mary away anyway? Can we imagine Jesus growing up in the home of an unwed, single mother in first-century Judea? Would Jesus have ever known God as his heavenly Father if Joseph had never taken on the role of Jesus’ earthly father? It took courage for Joseph to claim Jesus as his own. His example calls for us to muster the courage to make Jesus our own as well.
Hear then anew the Word of God, Matthew 1.18-25:
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no union with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Joseph adopted the Son of God as the child of humankind, and through Christ God adopts human beings as children of God. There seems to be a symmetry of salvation and relationship at work. It is a Marvelous Exchange! We see in Joseph’s story that we and God belong to each other in and through the one whom Joseph named Jesus, “God helps.”