By Debie Thomas
Every third year, our lectionary turns its spotlight away from Mary and gives us the perspective of her would-be husband, a quiet, unassuming descendant of the House of David. So our entry point into the Nativity story on this fourth Sunday of Advent is not Mary, or Elizabeth, or John the fiery Baptizer. It is Joseph, a quiet carpenter who upends his good life for a dream.
If we are tempted to sideline Joseph as a minor character in the Christmas narrative, the Gospel of Matthew reminds us that in fact, Joseph’s role in Jesus’s arrival is pivotal. It is his willingness to lean into the impossible, to embrace the scandalous, to abandon his notions of holiness in favor of God’s messy plan of salvation, that allows the miracle of Christmas to unfold. As Matthew makes clear, the Messiah must come from the house and lineage of David, and so it rests on Joseph to give his name and his legitimacy to Mary’s child. If Joseph refuses, the fulfillment of prophecy comes to a halt.
The Gospel describes Joseph as a “righteous man,” which is to say, a man devoted to God, and concerned with clean, ethical living. Though Matthew doesn’t elaborate, I think we can safely assume that Mary’s bethrothed is not a guy who likes to make waves, or call attention to himself, or venture too close to controversy. Like most of us, he wants an orderly life. He’s honest and hardworking. He follows the rules. He practices justice and fairness, and all he wants in exchange is a “normal,” uncomplicated life. Is that too much to ask?
Poor Joseph. Does he remind you of anyone you know?
As Matthew tells the story, the God-fearing carpenter wakes up one morning to find that his world has shattered. His fiancée is pregnant, he knows for sure that he is not the father, and suddenly, he has no good options to choose from. If he calls attention to Mary’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, she might be stoned to death, as Levitical law proscribes. If he divorces her quietly, she’ll be reduced to begging or prostitution to support herself and the child. If, on the other hand, he marries her, her son will be Joseph’s heir, instead of his own biological child. Moreover, Joseph will be tainted forever by the scandal of Mary’s illicit pregnancy, and by her ridiculous (blasphemous?) claim that the baby’s dad is somehow God.
Matthew doesn’t go into much detail about Joseph’s anguish. However, in the Protoevangelium of James, an extracanonical text from the 2nd century C.E, we get a fuller, harsher picture of the carpenter’s pain. When Joseph sees Mary’s swollen belly, he throws himself on the ground, strikes his own face, and cries bitterly. He wonders long and hard how to respond, and asks Mary why she has betrayed both him and God so cruelly.
Though this text isn’t in our canon, it’s not hard to imagine a similar scene playing out between Joseph and Mary in real life. The fact is, Joseph didn’t believe Mary’s story until Gabriel told him to. Why would he? Why would anyone?
We make a grave mistake, I think, when we sanitize Joseph’s consent. We distort his humanity when we assume that his acceptance of God’s plan came easily, when we hold ourselves at arm’s length from his humiliation and doubt. In fact, what Joseph’s pain shows me is that God’s favor is not the shiny, anodyne thing I’d like to believe it is. It’s not the God of the New Testament who promises wealth, health, comfort, and ease to his chosen ones — that’s just me, getting it wrong.
In choosing Joseph to be Jesus’s earthly father, God led a “righteous” man with an impeccable reputation straight into doubt, shame, scandal, and controversy. God’s call required Joseph to reorder everything he thought he knew about fairness, justice, goodness, and purity. It required him to become the talk of the town — and not in a good way. It required him to embrace a mess he had not created. To love a woman whose story he didn’t understand, to protect a baby he didn’t father, to accept an heir who was not his son.
In other words, God’s messy plan of salvation required Joseph — a quiet, cautious, status quo kind of guy — to choose precisely what he feared and dreaded most. The fraught, the complicated, the suspicious, and the inexplicable. So much for living a well-ordered life.
Then again, Joseph’s story gives me hope. I can’t relate to a person who leaps headlong into obedience. I can relate, however, to a person who struggles, to a person whose “yes” is cautious, ambivalent, and scared. I’m grateful that Joseph’s choice was a hard one. I’m glad he struggled, because I struggle, too.
Interestingly, in the verses that immediately precede our Gospel reading, Matthew gives us a genealogy of Jesus’s ancestors. He mentions Abraham — the patriarch who abandoned his son, Ishmael, and twice endangered his wife’s safety in order to save his own skin. He mentions Jacob, the trickster usurper who humiliated his older brother. He mentions David, who slept with another man’s wife and then ordered that man’s murder to protect his own reputation. He mentions Tamar, who pretended to be a sex worker, and Rahab, who was one. These are just a few representative samples.
Notice anything? Anything like messiness? Complication? Scandal? Sin? How interesting that God, who could have chosen any genealogy for his Son, chose a long line of brokenness, imperfection, dishonor, and scandal. The perfect backdrop, I suppose, for his beautiful works of restoration, healing, hope, and second chances.
There is much to ponder in the Nativity story — much to consider about the surprising ways of God. Who brings salvation into the world via a young woman whose story about her own sex life was not believed? Via a well-meaning man who had to let go of righteousness in order to follow God? Via a cultural system obsessed with male honor and female purity? Via the flimsiness of dreams? Via a helpless, illegitimate baby?
No wonder that the angel Gabriel’s first words to Joseph were, “Do not be afraid.” If we want to enter into God’s messy story, then perhaps these are the first words we need to hear, too. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid when God’s work in your life looks alarmingly different than you thought it would. Do not be afraid when God upends your cherished assumptions about righteousness. Do not be afraid when God asks you to stand alongside the scandalous, the defiled, the suspected, and the shamed. Do not be afraid when God asks you to love something or someone more than your own spotless reputation. Do not be afraid of the precarious, the fragile, the vulnerable, the impossible.
Do not be afraid of the mess. The mess is the place where God is born.
Debie Thomas: email@example.com
See here for our Journey with Jesus weekly webzine for the global church. All free, all the time.