As even the most casual readers of the Gospels know, Matthew’s story about the birth of Jesus differs from Luke’s, the only two Gospels that narrate Jesus' birth. While Luke focuses on Mary, the beginning chapters of Matthew’s Gospel focus on Joseph. What might we learn from what Matthew tells us about Joseph?
First, Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous/just (dikaios) man (Mt. 1:19), and he tells us this in the context of Joseph discovering that his betrothed is having a child that is not his. Joseph’s discovery of this leads him to believe that Mary has been unfaithful to him. But what makes him righteous?
Joseph is righteous because he is obedient to the law, and that law directs him to take one of two actions in regards to Mary. He can either have Mary stoned or he can divorce her. Joseph chooses to divorce Mary.
But notice that he chooses to do so quietly, not wanting to bring shame on Mary. His continual love for her and his just character causes him to decide that a quiet, non-public separation is best. Yet, he is still resolute to dissolve the marital contract.
All of this changes, however, through the visitation of an angel to Joseph in a dream. The dream that comes to Joseph, and the message delivered by the angel, speaks about God’s quickly approaching future. The angel says,
Joseph’s dream forces a decision. Does he continue his plans to divorce Mary in secret, or does he believe that God is doing something new, now that he has heard this unbelievable story from the angel? And for that matter, why must Joseph take Mary as his wife? The reason this plot line is important may be found in the way the angel addresses Joseph as “son of David.”
This title eventually becomes an important title for Jesus, but it becomes very important here in relation to Joseph and his role as Mary’s husband and Jesus’ future proxy father. To understand this, we need to back up to the opening of Matthew’s Gospel where the author begins with the genealogy of Jesus.
What is important in the genealogy for what the angel tells Joseph is the emphasis on David within the lineage of Jesus. Matthew is very concerned to narrate his story of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, and particularly as it relates to the prophecies that the messiah will be in the line of David. But how is this possible if Joseph is not the father of Jesus, which, according to Matthew and Joseph, he is not?
It is possible because Joseph does take Mary as his wife and when she does give birth, Joseph names the baby just as the angel instructed him to do (Mt. 1:21). When Joseph names Jesus, he takes on the role of father and he becomes the one who cares for and protects Mary and the child.
Think about this for a moment. If Jesus is the messiah, the son of David, then it is imperative that Joseph take on the role of father of Jesus. If he does not, then Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus crumbles and Matthew’s whole narrative about Jesus falls apart. And if Joseph does not take Mary as his wife, this places God’s plan, at least according to Matthew, at risk and the promises of the past may not be fulfilled.
All that Matthew has said, all that the gospel promises, hinges not just on the providence of God, but on the decision of Joseph in response to that strange dream.
This story involving Joseph, a mere and unknown mortal, critiques our traditional and accepted understandings of God, causing us to consider God’s vulnerability. To me, this narrative tells of a God who risks.
We could even look at this whole story of Joseph and Mary and ask, “Why these two?” Why this unknown couple, about whom we still no very little, except that they were part of the lower class of Israel?
I’m not sure I have good answers to these questions, but perhaps the best answer is found in Matthew's use of Isaiah 7:14 as being fulfilled in the coming child.
Perhaps in applying Isaiah's prophecy about a child to Jesus, especially the reference to the name, Emmanuel, God with us, Matthew is saying that God does not desire to intervene in our world like a master, but that God desires to interact with us in loving relationship.
Moreover, maybe God so desires to be with us that in choosing to come as one of us, God took on the most vulnerable existence. In being Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus would get his start in a pregnancy that carried great social stigma, in a home of an impoverished couple, and in the frailty of the first century Roman occupied Palestine. Not the start that any of us would want for any of our children, but God chooses this path of risk and vulnerability, and God chooses and takes a chance with this little known man named Joseph.
That should make us all pause and reflect on whether or not we are open to the improbable that God wants to do through us.