“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.” – Matthew 1:18-25
I’m going to attempt something different today. I’d like to approach Matthew’s gospel – the story of Jesus’ birth – from a guy’s point of view. I have to admit I’m working with a bit of a handicap here (not being a guy myself…) But I was intrigued by what our Gospel reading says about Joseph being a “just man” (or in other versions, “a righteous man”) – and I think it’s worth exploring what Matthew’s gospel has to say about what it means to be a ‘righteous man’.
Matthew begins the story in chapter 1 verse 18 by saying, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit…”
You’ve probably heard sermons in the past that have mentioned the fact ‘being betrothed’ meant more in Jesus’ day than just an engagement ring and a promise. But to give you an idea of exactly what was going on in Joseph’s life… let me share a conversation I had with a classmate from Africa this week. (btw he knows I’m sharing this story with you today). Our lunch table conversation got onto the topic of marriage and divorce, and I asked him what the divorce rate was like in his country. He hesitated for a moment and then said, “in my country and in my native language there is no word for divorce.”
You can imagine the stunned silence that followed. He continued – “but to understand, you must first understand how we go about getting married. When two people become engaged the whole village gets involved. The groom’s mother and sisters get to know his fiancee, and the bride’s brothers and father and their friends get to know the groom. They and the whole village look for any potential problems and address any concerns they see.”
“And,” he said, “the groom also must sit down with his future father-in-law and negotiate a “bride price”.” (BTW “bride price” is also mentioned in Exodus, so it’s likely this custom was still going on in Joseph’s time.) Men – can you imagine, as a young man in your 20s, sitting down with your future father-in-law face to face and discussing with him what it’s worth to you to marry his daughter?
When it says in scripture that Joseph and Mary were betrothed, this is what it means. Business deals had been struck, a bride price had been named and partially paid, the whole village was involved. From a legal standpoint, Joseph and Mary were already married – they just hadn’t had the ceremony and moved in together yet.
Imagine being in Joseph’s shoes when one day Mary’s brothers show up on the doorstep looking very troubled. “Joseph,” they say to you, “our sister has shamed our family. She is not worthy to be your wife. Here is your bride price back. We are at your disposal and will wait for your decision.”
They don’t need to say anything more, because you know what it means: Mary is pregnant, and the child is not yours. And you have a decision to make: will you do what the law requires, or will you allow the family to remove Mary from the village quietly and send her to live somewhere else? Because the penalty for adultery – and this would be adultery because they are legally married – is death by stoning, which would take place in the village square.
Joseph, being a righteous man, as angry and hurt as he is, doesn’t give in to a knee-jerk reaction. He sits down and thinks. He considers the options. And he comes to a decision that is more compassionate than the letter of the law: “being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, he resolved to divorce her quietly.”
At this point I need to take you into the Greek for a minute so hang in there with me. The phrase “being unwilling to put her to shame” is an extremely mild translation. A more accurate translation would be “not wanting to make a public example of her” or “not wanting to make a spectacle of her”. Because this wasn’t just about shame – it was about holding Mary up to the whole town and saying: “See? Here’s what happens if you commit adultery” and making the whole village witness the violent death of a teenage girl. As a righteous man, Joseph didn’t want that for Mary or her family or his village.
Joseph chooses the way of mercy. He chooses to ‘divorce her quietly’. One other note on the Greek: just like in my classmate’s culture, Biblical Greek also has no word for divorce – the concept is expressed in euphemisms. Joseph will ‘release her’. So Joseph sends word back to Mary’s family: “I release Mary. Handle the situation as you see fit.” And THEN – only after Joseph’s decision has been made – an angel visits Joseph in his sleep.
And the angel says, “Joseph, Son of David,” reminding him of his royal lineage. It must have been something for a poor carpenter in a small town far from the centers of earthly power to be reminded by a heavenly being that he and his sons are heirs to the throne. The angel continues: “do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; 21 she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
In ancient Jewish society it was the father who named the children. And the angel must have known that. When the angel announced God’s plans to Mary he didn’t mention a baby name. The angel handed to Joseph the right to name the child.
Verse 24 mentions some other things Joseph did. It says he got up and he did what God commanded. I imagine at some point a conversation took place, probably at Mary’s house in front of her whole family: Joseph might have said something like: “Mary – what you said is true. The angel visited me too. This is God’s child you’re carrying. And I will marry you.” At that moment in time there were only two people on the planet who knew who knew the Messiah had arrived and knew He was curled up inside of Mary. And Joseph was the head of that family. From now on it would be his job to protect and care for this young girl and the baby she was carrying.
No doubt the entire village thought he was crazy. Marrying a pregnant woman – unheard of! Unthinkable! But Joseph, being a righteous man, was not concerned with public opinion; he only cared what God thought. And finally in verse 25, we read that Joseph was a patient man, willing to wait for what was promised to him. And when the time came, he had the honor of naming the baby Jesus.
This morning I want to encourage the men of this parish to keep on following in Joseph’s footsteps. I have seen all of you step up to serve God in this church and in the community and in your families. Keep on keeping on. And ladies, I challenge us to encourage the men – when they are doing righteous things – catch them doing it and say so.
The other thing we can take away from the Gospel reading this morning is that a man doesn’t need to be rich or famous to be a righteous man. He just needs to concern himself with doing everyday things God’s way. Because you never know when an act of mercy or compassion or obedience might change the course of history. AMEN.