Learning from Joseph
Introduction: The infancy story as by Matthew has some very different emphases than the story as told by Luke. In today’s Gospel the person who comes to the forefront is Joseph.
HOMILY: Joseph is offered to us as an example. As the story begins Joseph is presented with a dilemma. His wife is pregnant and he knows that he is not the father and he can only think that another is. In chapter 22 of the book of Deuteronomy two ways are indicated in which a woman might become pregnant before joining her husband: she might willingly have relations with another and commit adultery (vs. 20?24), or she might be forced against her will and thus remain innocent. (vs. 35?37) Joseph could have demanded a trial. As a devout observer of the Mosaic Law, Joseph wished to break his union with someone who he suspected of gross violation of the law. But Joseph also heard the Law (Torah) calling him to care for the defenseless. So he decided to divorce her quietly.
We see Joseph presented as one who keeps the law as it was known and handed down to him. He is faithful to his tradition.
But he is also presented as one, who fulfills the will of God, as he knows it.
The will of God is made known to him in a dream by an angel. He is told to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife. It is revealed that the child has been conceived through the Holy Spirit. He is to name him Jesus. When Joseph names the child Jesus he acknowledges him as his son and Joseph becomes the legal father of Jesus. The angel gives the name Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins.”
But Matthew also introduces into his story the words of the prophet Isaiah which speak of the “virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means God is with us. This is a greater identity, which Joseph must accept beyond that of Son of David and Jesus, savior of his people. Jesus is God with us. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus will proclaim: “I am with you always to the end of the world.”
We are called to grow in the role of Joseph. We do this when we attend to what is holy as it is handed down to us, and when we do our best to defend the weak and helpless. We do this when we attend to that voice that calls to us to go beyond the accepted or imposed limits, when we are open to God’s ability to do new things, so that God might be born once again into our world. Matthew’s Gospel proclaims a different way of life from the predominant kingdom of Rome, Herod and the Institutional religion of the scribes and pharisees. Later in the Gospel, Jesus will say, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Joseph is described as a righteous man. But Joseph begins living the new way of life which Jesus will proclaim.
The overall mood of Matthew’s Christmas story is quite different from that of Luke’s. There are not triumphant angels, a picturesque gathering of shepherds, little focus on a tender vision of mother and child. Instead there are ominous plots against the child, outbreaks of violence, displacement and exile. Matthew will end his Gospel with similar events, plots against the adult Jesus, and outbreaks of violence against him, crucifixion and death. But Jesus will rise to new life. At the beginning and end of Matthew’s Gospel there is the promise of God’s abiding presence, bringing salvation in spite of sin and rejection. Jesus overcomes obstacles, sin even death itself. He lives. We approach the day when we celebrate that he is born. Christmas.