How are we to understand Joseph? I mean, the story is about Jesus, but Joseph is the central character. Maybe if we can understand Joseph, we can understand what Jesus means to Joseph. We meet Joseph as someone with an embarrassing and anxiety-producing problem: his wife is pregnant and he is not the father. I call Mary his wife. Our culture does not wed the way Jesus’ culture wed. When a marriage was arranged and contracted, the couple were married. What we translate “engagement” was the period (possibly years) after the wedding but before the couple made a home together. The text of the Gospel suggests Joseph and Mary were just about to move in together when Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant. Since Joseph was not the father, by law Mary had committed adultery, and Joseph was to inform everyone and have her stoned to death.
Matthew tells us that Joseph was “righteous”—he followed the Law—and that he did not want to cause Mary disgrace. The anxiety of a cheating spouse and a scandalized community could drive Joseph to have Mary stoned. Joseph counters that anxiety. He wants a creative, merciful, charitable application of the Law. He finds one. Charitable: Mary may not have been a willing participant in the sex act that caused her pregnancy. Merciful: If not, she is not to blame and not to be stoned. Creative: Whoever did this to her is legally responsible. …The problem is that Mary will now be single and have a child, and in her culture that’s shameful. Joseph is trying, but this is not a great solution. An angel of the Lord will deliver the best solution straight from God, and it’s patterned after a scene in Isaiah. Conveniently, that scene is our First Reading. Before going any further with Matthew, we should give Isaiah a look.
Isaiah of Jerusalem lived at a time when Judah and Samaria were losing their independence. When late bronze age civilization collapsed the great powers like Egypt and Sumer weakened. This made room for the Hebrews to build their nation. By the Eighth Century BCE, civilization has recovered. The King of Assyria decides it is time to conquer Egypt, and Palestine is in his way. In 734 BCE the Assyrian army marches unimpeded through Palestine all the way to Egypt. The kingdoms of the levant are terrified. What do we do about this army? We cannot let it pass, and we cannot stop it. The King of Samaria messages King Ahaz of Judah, and said, “We’re forming an alliance against Assyria.” Ahaz says, “New phone. Who dis?” The King of Samaria and his allies threaten Ahaz: join us willingly or we’ll overthrow you and force Judah into our alliance.
Everyone is anxious. Samaria is anxious because Assyria can annihilate them. Judah is anxious because Assyria can annihilate them, and Samaria is after them. That anxiety affects decision making. Isaiah of Jerusalem offers a creative solution. He says to Ahaz, “Look! The young woman is with child and shall bear a son and call him God With Us, because before the boy is an adult the kingdoms harassing you will be destroyed.” In other words, let Samaria threaten you. They cannot beat you. They will lose to Assyria, and soon. You will be okay. That’s not the route Ahaz chooses. He essentially “tattles” on Samaria. He tells Assyria what Samaria is plotting. He hastily saves his own skin but makes Judah dependent upon Assyria.
We also get this haunting look into the anxious minds of the Samarians in our Psalm. It’s probably written by a Samarian around the time of this incident. The Samarians wind up destroyed. We prayed the prayer of a doomed people. “How long will your anger fume? Our enemies laugh us to scorn. Oh, God of our armies, restore us?” Lord of hosts=God of the angel armies. The Samarians are anxious and the only solution they can see is a sudden reinforcement of the army by angels and God taking command. It does not happen. It’s one of the hard lessons God’s people must learn: God does not have a country. And as important as good government is for our wellbeing, it’s not the best God can do. The best God can do is Jesus Christ, Son of David and Son of God. God’s solution is the baby causing all of Joseph’s anxiety. So, back to Joseph.
Joseph, recall, seeks a merciful application of the Law. The problem is that his solution still leaves Mary ruined. God’s angel offers a superior solution, patterned on Isaiah. They tell Joseph, “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son and they will name him Emmanuel.” Where in Isaiah we don’t know who the young woman was, here we know it’s Mary. And, where in Isaiah God’s good news was, “Do not be afraid of Samaria,” here the good news is, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. She will give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.”
Not to downplay the Christological significance of what’s said here, the angel effectively says, “You know, Joseph, you could say the kid is yours.” In that world, when a man named a newborn, the man became the child’s legal father. It’s not the same as adoption. Adoption is not a strong enough term for it. Despite the people knowing he is not biologically the father, he is the father, end of story. It’s not the way we think, but in their world it worked. In fact, it was in keeping with the Law. This is a creative approach to the problem. It’s a merciful application of the law. There is no scandal. There is no shame. Mary is okay. Joseph is okay. Baby is okay.
How are we to understand Joseph? In Matthew’s version of the birth of Jesus, Joseph counters the anxiety of Mary’s pregnancy. Joseph tries to be merciful, charitable, and creative. Joseph shows that he gets the point of the Law. Late in Jesus’ life Jesus will say that all the Law and the Prophets hang on two commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. That sounds an awful lot like what Joseph is trying to do in his dealing with Mary and the unexpected pregnancy. In Joseph’s dream, the angel shows Joseph the pathway to a perfect merciful, charitable, and creative solution. And the baby born is God’s merciful, charitable, creative solution. That’s what Jesus means to Joseph: Jesus is the embodiment of God’s mercy, creativity, and charity.
God wipes out the anxiety that could have led to Mary’s death or public disgrace. Instead, in a brilliant stroke of creativity, the very problem—the unexpected baby—becomes the solution. This changes Joseph’s life forever. He and Mary make their household together. He is Jesus’ father. The solution does not put things back the way they were. Joseph is not a bachelor again. No, what God does is keep Joseph within the faith tradition—this is a good and lawful plan God has concocted—while simultaneously changing Joseph’s whole life.
Here at Trinity we asked as part of our Strategic Planning, “If God has God’s way for the next five years, what will happen at Trinity?” Embedded in that question is the assumption that it won’t stay exactly like it is. You can think of Church as like Judah and Samaria facing a world in which their situation was changing quickly, and anxiety threatened to limit their creativity. Judah once was at the crossroads of the Middle East, any trade passed through so there was wealth, any neighbor needed Judah’s cooperation so there was security. Church used to be a power player. Anyone who was anyone was at Church. By the time Isaiah gives the Emmanuel Prophecy, Judah has little prospect of maintaining its wealth and security. Today, the Church has little prospect of soon being what it once was in this country. Isaiah urges, “Do not be afraid. Things are changing, but God will still be God and you will still be God’s people.” Today, Isaiah urges the same thing. “God will still be God and you will still be God’s people. It’s going to look different is all.” Some Churches choose not to take that route. Like Ahaz of Judah, they are anxious, and they try to keep things as they are. They miss God’s merciful, creative, charitable gift in Jesus.
The Church is just about to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and it would be a pity if we missed it. Just as you can think of Church as like Judah, you can think of Church as like Joseph facing an unexpected and anxiety-producing situation. Joseph, unlike Ahaz, asks what his faith tradition offers as a potential creative solution. He is open to possibility when the angel tells him, “Joseph, the problem is the solution. Just say the baby is yours.” Perhaps in these days running up to Christmas, God calls us to consider how the problem could be the solution. How the change could be what God is working. How the challenge could be the call. How the need could be the thing we fulfill. How Jesus can be for us what he was for Joseph: God’s merciful, charitable, and creative solution to what at first seemed an overwhelming problem.