Joseph, Bond and the Masculinity of Christmas: Sermon Reflections on Matt. 1:18-25
Joseph said, “ . . . do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. . . . God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives . . . .”
Those were the words of a Joseph, not the one depicted in the manger scene in your home, not Jesus’ father. Those are the words of Joseph, Jacob’s beloved son sold into slavery by his brothers, words not from a gospel but from Gen. chapter 45. The Joseph of the latter chapters of Genesis is a man who has become someone of significant means. He rose to the top of the political ranks in Egypt. He had servants. He was, as Pharaoh says in Gen. 41, put “in charge of the whole land of Egypt.” This Joseph wore the Pharaoh’s signet ring and without his word no one could “lift a hand or foot in all Egypt.” That’s how the Bible puts it.
The Joseph we meet in our Christmas reading from the first chapter of Matthew bears the name of that savior of Jacob’s family. The Joseph of Genesis is a bit of a James Bond sort of character. That Joseph is powerful. He’s able to outwit his brothers and smart enough to interpret the shadows of dreams. He could call in favors. The Joseph of Genesis is a leader’s leader, a man fit for celluloid with a splash Egyptian drama. He fits, at least at a glance, the Bond-ish caricature of the ideal man.
The Joseph we meet at the beginning of Matthew bears the name, maybe the goodwill and eventually even the significance of the Egyptian administrator. But he’s much more understated. Think about what he’s doing in our nativity sets. Usually Joseph just stands in the background. He’s there; he has to be. Someone had to bang on the doors of those inns and someone had to lead the donkey carrying the pregnant Mary.
In a piece of 17th century art that you’d recognize if you saw it, Gerard van Honthorst depicts the shepherds visiting the family in the stable. On the painting’s left side is a clump of them leaning in, watching the baby. At the center is of course, the child lying in an animal-feeding trough. He has his arms stretched out, reaching toward his mother. A rapture of light vibrates between them. Where’s Joseph? He stands behind Mary, looking at Jesus too, but at the same time keeping a cow from taking over the scene.
Mary is a picture of obedience; there’s no doubt about that. It’s the young Mary that offers her only real possession—her body—to God. Mary’s obedience is the channel God uses to dwell with his people. Mary’s only recorded instructions come in John 2, when she tells the servants at the wedding to do “whatever (Jesus) instructs them.” These are good word; and Mary is rightly the star of the story of Jesus’ birth. When it comes to giving birth, of course, women are always the stars.
And yet our reading from Matthew draws our attention to that ever-present background figure, the one that stands behind Mary in the crèche, one who stands somewhere between her and the cattle. Our attention in the opening of Matthew is drawn to Joseph, the everyday figure bearing the name of Israel’s empire-directing son.
This passage is caught between two concerns: first, the gospel-writer’s desire to present Jesus as a human figure with significant connections to Israel’s story. The gospel of John begins with philosophical ruminations on the Word and the light. Mark opens with a line about the “good news” of Jesus. Luke is the most similar to Mathew, but that account begins with a historian’s prologue: more or less, “here’s what I intend to do in this book and here’s how I’m going to do it.”
Matthew begins in maybe the most mundane way possible, with a genealogy. Mundane, I suppose, to outsiders like us, but to its intended Jewish audience Matthew’s gospel connects Jesus to the line of David. It positions Joseph fourteen generations from the exile, with the same distance standing between Abraham and David, as well as between David and the exile. The connections are cemented with references to Isaiah in our passage, the visit of the magi in chapter two, the escape to Egypt and return to Nazareth. Jesus is a very Jewish child.
But there’s a second concern at work, one that makes the author’s work more complicated. Many anatomists of the ancient near east believed that a child was the result of the father’s material contribution. There was no awareness of a mother’s gamete; no sense that both parents contributed genetics material. This one-sided view was important for thousands of years. So much so that in the 16th century the reformer Menno Simons could argue that Jesus had no biological relationship to either of his parents. For Menno, Mary was just a sort of virginal roaster for the Spirit’s baking project.
So Joseph is the key character in the verses we read today, but indirectly. His role is vaguely similar to the role of the barkeeper in Westerns: he’s necessary because someone has to serve drinks to the gunfighters and because someone has to duck when things get tense. Someone has to frame the boldness of the main characters.
The Joseph of the gospels is no Bond. But this is the reason he’s so important. It’s the reason he can’t be missed. Joseph is not the star. To readers like ourselves, in a culture fixated on “celebrity” Joseph must not be overlooked. Celebrities tend to think they deserve gifts, and they tend to think their gifts are for themselves—the wisdom of Joseph is to know otherwise.
Matt. 1:18 “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child.”
First, a side note: have you ever noticed that the key events in the Christian calendar have very physical, earthy aspects? We can’t talk about the triumph of God at Easter without talking about blood, embalming and death. We can’t talk about the love of God at Christmas without talking about sex.
We often think that Mary’s reputation would have been destroyed by the facts of Matt. 1:18—she became pregnant before she was married. This might be true; however, it also might be false. In Jewish culture at this time betrothal or engagement had legal status. It doesn’t to us. You can get engaged to whomever you want, whenever you want and it is legally meaningless.
I work with college students. It seems as though they’re getting engaged, unengaged and re-engaged every time there’s a major assignment due. This was not the case for first century Jews. What’s more, it wasn’t out of the question in some circles for engaged persons to be sexually active. It was permitted by some ancient moral theologians because the parentage of any potential child was secure—and that was the key concern.
Here’s the point: it may be that Joseph is the only person scandalized by Mary’s pregnancy. He’s the one who knows that the child isn’t his. It’s at this point that Matthew gives us this one simple descriptor of Joseph’s character: he was a “righteous man.” Other translations say he was a “good” man. What it means here is that he’s not vengeful. He has no desire to publicly dishonour Mary, even though he could. He could have responded based on the emotion that, “no one does this to me and gets away with it!”
Joseph would have been a terrible guest on the Jerry Springer show. He has a mind to do what’s right, but without any bluster our loudness. Joseph is a righteous man.
It’s only after he’d thought this through that he was visited by the messenger from God. The angel tells him not to be afraid and instructs him to name the child after another ancient hero, Joshua the conqueror of Canaan. In recounting the story, the gospel writer connects the events to Isaiah 7. The connection between the story of Mary and Joseph and Isaiah is a surprising one, but Matthew wants to tell us that the work of God hangs together: the young woman will bear a child, God with us. It was an ancient prophecy with layers of meaning beyond its appearance. I can’t think that when Joseph studied Scripture as a young man he would have imagined any possible connection to it. Certainly nothing as clear as the connection Paul makes in the opening verses of Romans.
And yet God’s presence in Jesus is inseparable from what Joseph does next. Verse 24: “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him . . . .” And that’s basically it.
No doubt, Joseph raised Jesus as any righteous father would. He would have shown his son how to navigate life. Joseph probably saw to it that Jesus had a trade and learned to handle the Scriptures well. But as far as the big story is concerned, Joseph was simply a good man. He was willing to believe there might be a gift of God in what looked like a problem. And he was willing to believe that this gift might not be just for him. And so Joseph steps back out of the spotlight. He holds a walking stick in one hand and his other offers support to his wife.
He’s not a man of action. He’s not a leader in any dramatic sense. Joseph isn’t out to expand his territory or make a name for himself. Joseph is a good man; he’s a man who simply obeys the command of God. Those are small things, traits of character, not charismatic gifts. But it’s into those faithful, humble arms that God’s presence would be birthed.
We can probably all think of people that resemble Joseph in one way or another. At least I hope so. They’re not always conservative people, not always silent people, but they’re rarely workaholics and they’re rarely the type to gravitate to center stage.
If nothing else, the Christmas story is a story of humility and subtlety. It’s a story of God’s surprising ways. Christmas is about our receiving God’s gift. It doesn’t have to be fraught with morals and duties, except for one—to celebrate Christmas is to celebrate humility. Only humble people can accept gifts well, knowing that they didn’t earn them and that they’re for the benefit of others. And for that Joseph is a model.