Other Referenced Bible Reading: Matthew 1:1-17 (NRSV)
A Little on Mary and Joseph
Mary and Joseph are beloved figures in the Christmas Story. The Virgin Mary, as she is often called, is the mother of Jesus Christ. Joseph’s place in the story is as her husband and the stepfather, of sorts, to the baby Jesus.
In the weeks marked as Advent, Mary—as mother—tends to take center stage. And, of course, her role is central to both the Advent and the Christmas stories. After all, without her, God would not have been made flesh, and Jesus never would have been fully human as well as fully divine.
It is the story of Mary’s visit from the Angel Gabriel that is often retold in Christmas pageants. It is the plight of Mary’s suffering and her acceptance of God’s will that causes her to be loved throughout Christendom. She is a woman unmatched.
But what of Joseph? What of the man who would marry her and adopt Jesus Christ as his son?
Joseph is often portrayed as a man who tries to run from his obligation, a man who does eventually accept, and a man who stands steadfast but silent beside the Virgin and her child.
However, he is so much more than that. Joseph—in my estimation—may be the bravest person depicted in the Advent Story. He certainly had the most to lose (more so, perhaps, than Mary), but we as readers often forget that. We look at vulnerable, shy, virginal Mary and see sweetness and innocence. When added to strength the perfect traditional idea of a mother appears.
What, though, of a father? Is a father any less because he does not carry a child inside him? Is a father any less if he is not biologically related to the son he gives a place to in the world? Does a father not protect the hearth and home with his life when his family is threatened?
And what are we missing as modern readers, readers living in America and not first-century Palestine?
Who is Joe?
Joseph, the husband of Mary, appears most prominently at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, unlike Mary who takes center stage in the Gospel of Luke. In fact, in that particular gospel he is sidelined and so, when telling the Christmas story, most ministers have to look away from Luke to find Joseph’s part in it.
We, two thousand years later, know very little about Joseph. We know that Joseph is a carpenter. We know that he was born in Bethlehem (as it was there that he went in order to be counted and taxed). We know that he moved his family to Galilee—a province of Israel that was extremely poor and heavily depended on fishing and other such trades. We know that he was older than Mary because of the nature of their engagement.
We know that it is Joseph who is descended from the House of David (and, so, he is of the royal bloodline)(Matthew 1:1-17).
Those are just the facts, and extremely bare at that. We have to look at the world he lived in, the culture, the times, to truly get a feel for not only Joseph but his position in the story of the birth of Jesus.
Joseph in his Setting
If we remember previous mini sermons, you may recall that marriage traditions were different two thousand years ago in the Middle East than they are in modern day America.
Now, it differs from state to state, but overall you can’t get married in America unless you and your future spouse are both eighteen or “legal adults.” (There are, of course, exceptions.) Teenagers, also, generally date other teenagers or young twenty-somethings. This is not a hard and fast rule, but no one bats their eyes at a sixteen-year-old girl holding hands with a boy roughly her age. These two lovebirds may not grow up to marry each other, but first loves tend to be between people roughly the same age. (As before, there are many exceptions.)
This was not the case in first century Palestine. Girls who had “flowered” or “matured” (read: young women who were capable of having children) were eligible for marriage. This would have been about the age of twelve or thereabouts. Their families would want the best husbands for them. That would include his tribe and family, his position, how wealthy he was, but also how capable he was of taking care of a young wife and supporting a new family. Men, as it happened, were not established until their early thirties or even later. That’s when they’d move out of their mother’s home (if they did move out), they’d have their own business potentially and would be steady enough earners that they could guarantee their future wife and children would not go hungry.
Taking this all into account, Mary would have been a 12-year-old girl and Joseph would be a man more than twice (if not triple) her age.
Their marriage would most likely not have been a “love match.” It would have been arranged. There may very well be affection between them (and, after all, they were building a home together and raised Jesus as their child, so they must have at least respected one another), but that was not the reason for their marriage.
Now, this is where it gets a little strange (if twelve-year-olds having children being the norm wasn’t strange enough to our modern sensibilities): as soon as a man and a young woman were engaged formally, they would often start living with one another. Now, Matthew 1:18 makes a point to say that they are not living together, before referring to Joseph as Mary’s “husband”.
In many cases of engagements, it took time to prepare the feast for the guest. The families might wait until after the harvest was in or wait for other considerations, such as the bride maturing a couple of months. In these situations, the engaged couple could and often did have a sexual relationship that could result in children. Because they were promised, they were considered married. Their children wouldn’t be illegitimate or “bastards” as their parents are betrothed. This wouldn’t bring shame upon them because they have pledged themselves to one another (as had their families). The wedding feast (or “marriage ceremony”) would be just a formality.
The line between engagements and marriages were very, very thin and labels could be used interchangeably.
This is the world Joseph lived in. This is the world that Mary lived in. This is the world Jesus was born into.
Imagine Joseph’s shock if his young preteen fiancée told him she was with child—and the child wasn’t his. This would be terrifying. This would be mind-blowing. This would be insulting to not only him but his family and his tribe. This would be insulting to all of Israel.
Mary—who in his eyes chose to forsake her pledge to marry him—was potentially foisting a child on him, who was not of his blood.
Children, Illegitimacy, and Adoption
Children have always held a distinct place in societies around the globe and throughout history. While different cultures differ in how they view and treat children, it is almost universally agreed that a child is precious or at least valued.
Now, this isn’t to say that every child is well treated by their caretakers or their governments.
However, children carry on bloodlines (of both the father and mother). Children are the future. Children are potentially workers. Children are heirs to titles and names and homes. The names we give our children denote what we, as a society, value.
In first-century Palestine, a child carried his father’s name, was given his father’s blessing, and continued his father’s work and legacy. Joseph knew that his sons would all be carpenters, as he was a carpenter. Joseph knew his sons would all be born of the line of David. Joseph knew that if he named one of his sons “Joseph” and that child survived after his own death, then he would live on through that name. This is a very sacred and patrilineal view of children.
As such, orphans had no place in this society. They had no parents to live on for, they had no purpose, no name, no place in this world. It was extremely rare for anyone to adopt a child, and if they did, it would most likely be a close relative. Any other child would have no purpose to an adult. The child would not have his name (only borrowing it if he bestowed it upon the child). The child would not have his blood or his history running through his/her veins. The child would not be a testament to his place in the world.
So—if we look at the situation again—here is Joseph who is contracted to a girl named Mary, who is having another man’s baby (or so he believes). Everything in this situation is wrong in both the eyes of Joseph and of society.
Of course, he wouldn’t wed Mary after this. She’s shamed him. Of course he wouldn’t adopt the baby as his own: the baby doesn’t share his bloodline. Of course he would wish to distance himself from the situation as much as possible.
This behavior and this reaction in no way, shape or form make Joseph a coward. It makes him pragmatic. It makes him sensitive to the history he himself carries in his blood and in his name. As a Jewish man at this time, there would be no question what his reaction would be. It only makes sense. It is logical. It is—at the time—the moral choice.
What changed was, quite simply, the Angel Gabriel and his visitation to Joseph.
Joseph was going to end his engagement quietly, only knowing that Mary was pregnant and he was not the father. He was going to do right by himself, right by the Lord and the Lord’s society (i.e. Israel), and as right by Mary as he could in the situation.
The Gospel of Matthew calls him “righteous”—this is not an insult or a backhanded compliment. It means that Joseph was “right with the Lord.”
When the Angel Gabriel appears to Joseph, everything that Joseph knew and understood was set upon its head. His world turned upside down. Nothing made sense. Everything was wrong. Joseph no longer understood his society or the Lord’s path for him. He certainly could not comprehend God’s reasons.
Joseph could have ignored the Angel Gabriel. Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, tried to demure (see mini sermon #31) and was punished for it. Joseph could have tried to reason or cajole. Joseph could have convinced himself he’d had a momentary break with reality, had a glass of wine, and gone on with his life as he had before.
However, Joseph did something else. He did something unexpected. He took what he knew, what he believed, and tossed it out the window and did as the Lord asked of him. He took Mary for his wife and took Jesus for his son, even though everything inside of him was telling him to run away and never come back.
This reaction—on Joseph’s part—was not only brave but it was revolutionary. No, he didn’t hold up a sign, he didn’t march on Jerusalem, and he didn’t start tweeting (or, well, sending carrier pigeons).
And Joseph—a man with a trade and a bloodline no one really remembered—changed the face of the world because of it. Without Joseph, Mary would not have been protected. Without Joseph, Jesus would have not had a name or a place in society. Without Joseph, we would be having a very different conversation.