Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Christmas Reflection

Joseph, the Obedient Father

If you were God and you were working out an elaborate plan whereby one member of the Trinity would visit humankind, be born as a baby, and grow to manhood before revealing himself as the Messiah, you wouldn’t want him growing up in just any old home, right? Not that Jesus could have turned out badly, but because you’d want him in a caring environment where his parents saw to his physical and spiritual well-being. Much is made, as it should be, of Jesus’ mother Mary. She was a remarkable young woman whose words “let it be to me according to your word” should be our heartbeat. But we don’t hear as much about Joseph and I think that’s too bad.

We’re introduced to him in Matthew 1, where, after a long line of “___ the father of ___ and ___ the father of ___,” there’s “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born . . .” Right away you know something is different, which we know is the Virgin Birth, as we’re told in the following verses. Verse 18 tells us that Mary was “betrothed” to Joseph and “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Except Joseph didn’t know the Holy Spirit part. Not yet.

I’m a marriage counselor and a large part of my practice is helping couples whose lives have been ravaged by an extramarital affair. I’ve sat across from couples and watched as the offended spouse battled with the shock and disillusionment of the betrayal. Their world has been turned upside down; everything they thought they knew is now up for grabs.

Was this what Joseph was feeling when he discovered Mary was pregnant? Did he sit there in disbelief as Mary told him (assuming she told him; Scripture doesn’t say) she’d been visited by an angel and that her pregnancy was the Holy Spirit’s doing? I’ve heard offending spouses weave some pretty remarkable explanations for the cause of their affairs. Was Joseph’s head spinning as this discovery was made? I don’t know, but I think we do an injustice to Joseph if we don’t consider the real possibility that he was feeling some of this. They were betrothed, which was a far higher level of commitment than engagement in our culture, and in our day, finding out the one you’re engaged to has had an affair is plenty bad. Our culture has cooked up the awful practice of “friends with benefits.” Betrothal was like marriage without benefits. You weren’t yet living together, there were no sexual relations, yet it would take a legal divorce to end the relationship. Surely Joseph and Mary had talked and dreamed together about their future. Their marriage might have been arranged yet it’s pretty clear they loved each other. We know from the text that Joseph loved Mary, which I’m going to get into shortly. We’re not told this by Scripture, but I’m assuming Mary loved Joseph because she had such incredible greatness of heart. With a heart like hers how would she not have loved Joseph? So undoubtedly they’d dreamed of the life they’d live together, the children they’d raise to be faithful to the Law, the carpentry trade he’d teach their boys. Was that spinning wildly in Joseph’s mind as he learned Mary was pregnant?

I think it’s clear that Joseph loved Mary because of verse 19: “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Don’t get hung up on the divorce part. The Law allowed for that. It also allowed for Mary to be exposed, disgraced, and stoned to death. Joseph had a good heart; he wanted to continue his faithfulness to the law but in a way that would not hurt Mary. That’s sacrificial love.

Did Joseph know the extent to which Mary’s “out of wedlock” pregnancy would affect the rest of their lives? Did he know that his son’s parentage would be questioned, and those comments would call Mary’s integrity into question? Did he anticipate that he would be talked about, laughed at, as he went about his business in Nazareth? “Hey, there’s Joseph. What a rube! How na├»ve is that, to marry a girl who couldn’t even stay faithful during their betrothal?” Or, more likely, “well we know what you and Mary have been doing.”

I don’t know, I can only presume, what Joseph was thinking. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe not. What I’m sure of is that Joseph was a good man, just the sort of man you’d want to raise your son. He was a just man, faithful to the law. And he was led by God. Matthew 1:20 says “behold an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” In 2:13 it says “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.” And again in 2:19 it says “an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt.” Just like Mary, Joseph had a good heart. The angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and says “marry this girl” and he does. He shows up again and tells Joseph “move to Egypt and stay there until I tell you” and he does. The angel of the Lord shows up yet again and says “it’s time to go home to Israel but don’t settle where Archelaus is” and he obeys. Mary said “behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In his own quiet way Joseph said that, too.

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