"Joseph’s Response" or "Joe's Story"
Most of the time when we think about the Christmas story - about the coming of God as a human - we think about it the way the author of Luke recorded it. Our hearts warm with the memory of how the author records the prediction of John's birth to Zechariah and Elizabeth - the described appearance of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah and Mary - Mary's beautiful and poetic response known as the Magnificat - Mary's and Elizabeth's visit with one another. We know that story. We are enthralled by that story - especially on Christmas Eve do we marvel at its beauty - at its significance for us as a story of Mary's obedience - as a story of her willingness to be used by God. Luke's better known story is the Christmas story from Mary's perspective.
But what about Joe's story? Is there something for us to learn by how Joseph responded to what was going on around him?
Joe's story is also a marvelous story. It's a story about a man looking forward to getting married - a story about a man finding our his fiancee is pregnant, but not by him. It's a story about the struggle he went through with what to do about the situation. It's Matthew's spin on the Christmas story.
I'm going to let one of my favorite storytellers, John Sumwalt, recreate the essence of the biblical story to prepare us for our pondering the story anew:
“Mary didn’t know what to do. How could she break the news to Joe? They had only been dating for six weeks, but she knew that he loved her. She could see it in his eyes. And she knew that she loved him. He was so gentle and understanding. There weren’t many men in the world like Joe.
“Mary had met Joe in the emergency room on the very night of the assault, and they had been together every day since, as if it was meant to be. Joe was there waiting for a friend who had twisted an ankle in a softball game. She sat next to him in the waiting room before they took her in to be examined. Mary had been too upset to talk, and Joe hadn’t tried to make conversation. He didn’t even ask what had happened. He simply looked at her with tenderness and said, ‘It will be okay. They will take care of you.’ Even those few words had been enough to create a bond between them. And Joe had come back later, after he took his friend home, to see if she was all right. By then Mary was able to talk about the rape; the horror she had felt during the attack and the humiliation and anger that were still growing within her. She was grateful for his presence. Somehow it was easier to talk about it with him than with the counselor who had been assigned to her case. Joe had listened quietly for several hours that night, and had called or come to keep her company every night since, gradually coaxing her out of her small apartment into the world again.
“Joe had never once tried to touch her, and Mary loved him for that. He seemed to know without her saying it that she couldn’t stand to be touched - - not yet. Soon, maybe. She had found herself longing for that moment and wondering what it would be like during the last couple of weeks. Mary knew that Joe would wait until she gave him a sign, and she had thought that it might be tonight. But when she let him know what the doctor had told her today, would Joe want to touch her? Was this the end of her hope that their love would lead to marriage and a family? What would Joe do when she told him about the baby?” (1)
So Sumwalt's story ends. Obviously his intent was to create within us the enormity of the situation Mary and Joseph faced with the news of their pregnancy. Pretty effective, wouldn’t you say? When Joseph learned that his fiancee was pregnant, his first thought was that Mary had been stepping out on him. He knew what had gone on between them and he knew there was no way this organism growing within her was his child. In order for us to understand the significance of Joseph’s response we need to know a few things about what preparing for a Jewish couple to marry in Mary and Joseph’s day involved.
First, there was an engagement period. Often, the parents of the couple or a “match-maker” made these early arrangements and sometimes when the couple was still quite young. Marriage was deemed too important a step to be left to emotion. (2)
Then, following the engagement period there was the time of betrothal. It was similar to our time between when a couple gets engaged and when they actually marry, but a lot more legally binding. The couple either ratified the prior arrangements or they ended it. But, once the betrothal began, that was it. There was no turning back. Contracts were signed. Dowries were exchanged. Agreements made between them and their extended families were now legally binding. (3)
This betrothal time lasted about a year. During the betrothal they were known as husband and wife, although without the rights of husband and wife. The only way the relationship could be terminated was by divorce and then only for some well spelled out and documented reasons. (4)
So, Mary was pregnant. She and Joseph were in this betrothal time. Joseph wasn’t the father of the baby growing inside her. When Joseph heard about her condition, he assumed the worst - that she had been unfaithful – that she had committed adultery. It was one of the things that by law meant he could divorce her. In fact, it was what was expected of him.
Now, as a “righteous” man, Joseph could have accomplished this divorce in a couple of ways. One way would have been to publicly humiliate her – parade her around the community and let the law and the public opinion have their way with her. Making a spectacle of someone who has deviated from the laws or the values of a community is certainly one way to keep order and to safe-guard further erosion of acceptable behavior. It would be considered by some the “righteous” thing to do.
On the other hand, it was possible for a “righteous” man to carry out the policies, laws, values of the community, more mercifully. Joseph also had the option of taking with him two witnesses and going to see Mary privately; confronting her about her behavior and then quietly divorcing her with only the two witnesses present. It was an option Joseph probably considered. It would allow Mary to save face – keep her from being disgraced publicly. It would truly have been a very “righteous” way to have handled the predicament. Even his considering this option revealed the special kind of man Joseph was.
But, another one of those angels of God’s got involved and planted within Joseph the idea that there was even another, even a more radical form of “righteous” behavior he could exhibit. He could take Mary as his wife despite public opinion, legal rights, or the appearance of broken values!
And guess what? That’s what he did. Joseph married Mary and thus earned for himself a special place in religious history. He had every right to have said, “Yeah, right,” and been on his way when he heard Mary’s story. But, he didn’t. He chose instead to believe the explanation provided him by the angel and proceed with the marriage. He chose to obey God’s leading – to do the merciful thing – to protect Mary and her baby, Jesus, from the rumor mongers and the legalists – to accept potential embarrassment for himself rather than public humiliation which would surely be Mary’s lot if he divorced her and let her go full-term on her own. And the baby that would be born, well, heaven help him or her.
I would like to suggest that the world is desperately in need of people who are willing to be so used by God – willing to model this unique way God wants us to deal with one another and our mistakes, sins, wrongdoing, human condition. Joseph’s response models for us a new understanding of how God wants to relate to God’s people. His response serves as a precursor to the new understanding that Jesus himself goes on to proclaim and model in his life and teachings. It’s compassion, grace, forgiveness, mercy that should guide our meting out of justice – that should mold the way we relate to one another. Gone from righteousness shall be condemnation, punishment, chastisement, excommunication, banishment, rigid judgment. The world is in need of persons who will follow Joseph’s lead and respond with compassion – who will side with trying to understand, hospitality, acceptance, encouragement, grace rather than further laying on people guilt, grief, embarrassment, rejection.
All of us – and the children and the marginalized among us most of all – need to feel secure, feel protected, experience the comfort there is in knowing that God’s promises are true – that it doesn’t matter to God who we are, where we live, how much we make, how much or little we have – we are all loved by God the same. People need to know God as a Being with staying power – as one who doesn’t abuse, doesn’t abandon, doesn’t heap on when we’ve made a mistake. And, I think people come to believe that, understand that, when the people of God walk the walk and talk the talk.
In The Guideposts Christmas Treasury there is a story that I think speaks volumes about the importance of our modeling Joseph’s response. The story is entitled “Sit next to Me, Please.”
Many service clubs do things to serve their communities. A Kiwanis Club adopted a boys' orphanage as their project. The orphanage was 40 miles from the club's community but the members decided to drive the distance once a month to spend an evening with the boys. One of the members, Bob Rockwell, reluctantly finally agreed to go one month after having made excuse after excuse for several months. He really believed his monthly check should have been enough.
It was dark by the time the men arrived, but the boys could be seen crowded on the porch waiting for them to arrive. One of Bob’s friends whispered to him as they walked up the path toward the home, “This is such a big night for these boys. It’s almost embarrassing the way they enjoy us coming.”
About that time Bob felt a tug on his coat. It was a seven or eight-year-old who pleadingly asked him, “Will you be my company?” And then without taking a breath he continued with: “My name’s Jimmy – Jimmy Thompson. What’s yours?” Bob answered and noticed that some emotions were stirring inside him that he hadn’t expected despite how tired he was after the long drive and day at work.
Jimmy spoke again: “First time here, isn’t it Mister? Want me to show you around?” Bob no sooner agreed than Jimmy was off proudly pointing out the gym and the library and then his dorm – which was nothing more than a narrow room lined with rows of small iron beds.
Jimmy’s breathing seemed a bit labored and Bob wondered if they’d climbed the stairs too fast. But, even while struggling to breathe Jimmy called Bob’s attention to his very own wardrobe. Bob was shocked at how little was inside and felt a bit guilty when he thought of his own son’s overflowing toy chest.
The dinner bell sounded and Jimmy encouraged Bob to hurry. But, he asked him not to run because he had asthma. Jimmy turned toward Bob and asked, “Will you sit next to me, sir? Please sit next to me!” Bob did.
By the time the meal was over Bob and Jimmy were buddies. Bob listened to Jimmy as he told about his not having a father and how his mother had to work all week, but came out on Sunday to take him home for the day. He also learned that Jimmy lacked the ability to play ball very well because of his health problems. And he learned about Jimmy’s hope for the future. At one point, Bob, when Jimmy thought he wasn’t paying attention, noticed that Jimmy left his little hand on his arm for a long moment. Bob closed his story with these words: “This boy needs a father! He’s overflowing with love and there’s no one to receive it!”
Then he heard Jimmy ask: “Will you come again next month, Mister? If you do, I’ll save a place for you. Right next to me.”
“The pleading eyes were almost too much for me,” Bob continued. “I was having trouble with my breathing. Me! The smart guy who didn’t want to give up an evening of TV to come here! Who thought generosity came through the checkbook. Why, this tyke had given me more in an hour than I could give to the home in a hundred years!”
“How selfish I was to consider money alone an adequate gift. Why does it take so long for most of us to learn that the real gift is of one’s self?”
“Promise you’ll come next month?” The request was wheezed again.
“Scout’s honor,” Bob replied. To himself he said, “I’ll be here, Jimmy. I wouldn’t miss being here for anything, because you will be saving me a place – right next to you." (5)
The purpose of our retelling the stories of Mary and Joseph every year and their roles in this most holy of births is not just to glorify them. It's also done to remind us that God continues to ask of each of us this very personal gift of ourselves as we celebrate the birth. Just as God's very being was given at Christmas - just as Mary and Joseph gave themselves for the revelation of God in history in a new way - so we are asked to do the same - to give ourselves to the Christ child, to give the heart of who we are to a needy world. Joseph was able to do God's will - to be used by God - because he had a change of heart. Yes, he was already known as a "righteous" man - but he needed something more - something that only God working on our hearts can bring to pass.
As this Advent season - this holy time of preparation - enters its final days, it's important that we consider where it is God wants to work on us - where it is God is leading us to invest our whole being. We need to ponder what it would mean if God wanted our whole being under the Christmas tree this year.
Joe's story is about what God can do with the ugly situations we sometimes get ourselves into - even when we don't mean to. It's about what can happen when we turn our lives and those situations over to God. Joe's story - Joseph's story - can be our own story if we open our lives up to the God of creation. The Christmas story is not just about God's activity - God's coming in the form of a baby once in history. It's about God being present with us here and now. There's no gift God wants more than you and me.
Merry Christmas! Happy Holiday! Seasons Greetings!
John Sumwalt, “A Righteous Man,” Storyshare, December 19, 2004 issue.
William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew: Vol. 1 (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Saint Andrew Press, 1958), p. 9.
Robert H. Rockwell, The Guidepost Christmas Treasury, “Sit Next to Me, Please,” (Carmel, New York: Guideposts Magazine Guideposts Associates, Inc., 1972), pp. 176-178.