There’s a lot of talk these days about the effects of fractured and broken households on society at large. And there’s certainly enough people commenting on that situation (almost entirely negatively and judgmentally, I might add) for me to add much of worth to it. Let’s all agree that there’s way too many hurting people–especially children and single heads of households. It’s easy to just throw up our hands and exclaim, “What a mess!”
Of course, we 21st-century Americans didn’t invent family messes. This week’s lection from Matthew’s Gospel is a case in point. What was a guy like Joseph to do?
Here he was betrothed to Mary. Now that’s a very old-fashioned word, betrothed. It was a lot like being engaged, but there was quite a bit more to it than that. In ancient Judea for a man to be betrothed meant he was a lot closer to being married than being engaged today. For one thing, the only way out of being betrothed to a woman was divorce. He couldn’t just call it off and walk away. There were consequences for him and the woman.
Furthermore, it would have been socially acceptable for Joseph to “divorce” Mary once he found out she was pregnant (and for the purposes of our discussion here let’s set aside the much larger and more controversial topic of “virgin birth”). I suppose Joseph could have gone ahead and married Mary, then kept her and the child she would give birth to months later in some out-of-the-way, private place because of the obvious shame of it all. But he didn’t, and why he didn’t says a lot about the character of the man.
Joseph had a dream in which an angel explained the whole situation–the bigger picture, if you will–to him. This birth, and Joseph’s role in it, was part of God’s plan. Maybe it says more about God than any of the other characters in the story (Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and all the minor players here). This was not the Greek’s “god,” who remained distant, unknowable, uncaring, and more than a little capricious. It was not the later “god” who created the world and humanity then in essence set it on a shelf for things to work out all by themselves (much like a clockmaker would wind up his creation and leave it be). No, this God is a God of love. This God is a God who creates humanity in God’s own image, which means among other things that humans are to love one another.
Joseph’s role in it all was to love this woman and child. It was his role to name the boy who would be born. Although subsequent Christians connected this naming with Isaiah’s prophecy that a child would be born named Emmanuel, meaning “God with us,” Joseph, at the angel’s direction, would give the child the name Jesus (in Hebrew “Jesus” was actually Joshua, or Yeshua), which carried the meaning of “He will save his people.” Joseph’s role was not to end with the naming ritual, however. This boy would need a father, a dad, who would raise him to be the kind of man God expected.
We’re told by Matthew that Joseph was of the house and lineage of David. This week’s lectionary reading kindly does not include the long list of “begats” at the beginning of chapter one. Not that they’re unimportant–they show the direct link backward and forward: a new Genesis story that will lead ultimately to God’s peaceable kingdom. It’s just that most of us stumble over the names, unfortunately, and in doing so the full impact of the Davidic connection is often lost. There’s more to this than just genealogy, however. In Hebrew there’s a further subcategory to being “of the house and lineage.” It can also mean that Joseph bore the same kind of characteristics as his ancestor David.
Certainly King David had his shortcomings (and it’s not just with the story of Bathsheba), but he was also a man of compassion, a virtuous man who knew right from wrong (and admitted his transgressions publicly). Now we don’t know much directly about Joseph, but we do know what kind of son he raised. There is, after all, often a measure of truth to that old saying about an acorn not falling far from the oak tree. It’s therefore not a stretch at all to conjecture that Joseph was a godly man, who most likely passed that along to his son. Maybe it’s because we’re so used to talking about Jesus’ “Heavenly Father” that we forget that Joseph was indeed Jesus’ earthly father. And that counts for something–in fact, it counts for a whole lot.
Sociologists aren’t the only ones who decry the lack of fathers and other worthy male role models in many 21st-century households. That takes nothing away from single mothers (or, for that matter, lesbian moms in a committed relationship). But boys and girls growing up need the influence of good men in their lives. We, and the world, can be thankful that Jesus had the influence of Joseph in his childhood.