18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus. (CEB)
In writing fiction, I learned that tension is what moves a story along. Tension is what makes it interesting. It’s what makes you feel a little nervous when you read, even if you think you already know how the tension will be resolved. It’s the thing that makes you keep turning pages long after you should have put the book down.
When Matthew begins his narrative he declares, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” But when we read the text it’s clear that Matthew is not as concerned with the birth of Jesus as with his conception and his naming. The entire scene which follows is told through the eyes of Joseph, and it really is his religious and ethical dilemma that moves the story along.
The first thing we’re told about Joseph is his marital status. Joseph is engaged to Mary but they are not yet living together. The customs of marriage in Joseph and Mary’s day involved a two-stage process. The first stage was the betrothal or engagement, but in a much stronger sense than the word means in our day. When a woman was engaged to a man in the ancient Jewish world she was bound to him and he to her through formal words of consent. This betrothal would usually happen when the woman was quite young, twelve to fourteen years old. Once the woman and man were betrothed, they were already viewed by society as husband and wife, and they waited for a certain amount of time—usually about a year—for the second stage of the marriage process.
This second stage involved the woman moving out of her parents’ house and into the home of her husband. You might note that the United Methodist marriage service includes these two parts of marriage. The Declaration of Intention has its roots in the ancient Jewish betrothal ceremony, while the Marriage and Exchanging of Vows is from the marriage service. Joseph and Mary are in-between these two stages of the marriage process. Mary is, essentially, Joseph’s wife, but they are not yet living together.
The next thing we hear about Joseph is that he was faced with a life-shattering moral situation. Joseph was described as “a righteous man,” which means that he was careful to follow all of the commandments of God. He was careful to keep the whole of the Old Testament Law, he strove to live his life in harmony with God’s will, and to follow the Law of Moses to the letter. Because Joseph was a righteous man, he was a man in the middle of an ethical crisis. Mary was found to be pregnant and Joseph knew he wasn’t the baby-daddy. In Joseph’s mind there was only one possibility, and that was that Mary had been unfaithful to him.
What does the law say about this? The commandments are pretty cut and dry: Mary was to be cast aside, perhaps even put to death. While Joseph was a righteous man, he was also compassionate, so he intended to dismiss Mary, but to do so quietly. He cannot and will not swerve from the law. The law commands it, so Joseph will do it. Mary will be dismissed.
But here is where the text takes one of those surprising and unexpected turns. An angel of God appears to Joseph in a dream and reveals to Joseph that what appears to him to be a moral outrage is, in fact, a holy disruption in the sorrowful story of humanity. The child in Mary’s womb is not a violation of God’s will, but an expression of it. The child is not the result of human activity but a gift conceived of the Holy Spirit. The angel says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (NRSV).
Joseph is told not to be afraid. Yet, Joseph would certainly have been afraid to keep Mary no matter how deeply in love with her he might have been. He would have been afraid because keeping Mary would have been a violation of the law of Moses.
I think it would be extraordinarily difficult to be in Joseph’s position, even with the dream where an angel told him to take Mary as his wife I think it would be difficult. God is quite suddenly doing a new thing which, to all eyes, seems so contrary with the old established way. Joseph is given a new commandment, a new and higher law, and urged on to a new and higher righteousness when the angel says to him, “Take Mary as your wife and give to the son she is about to bear the name Jesus” (NRSV). Yet this new commandment, new law, and higher righteousness stands in contradiction with the old righteousness, old law, and old commandment. The angel is commanding Joseph to do nothing less than shatter the old law in order to keep this new law.
Can you imagine the difficulty? Can you imagine the ethical and religious dilemma this would present? I mean, I’ve had strange dreams before. If I were Joseph I might have chalked this one up to indigestion. So, will Joseph remain a “righteous man” in the old sense, or will he respond to God’s new thing and become a genuinely “righteous man” who walks in God’s new path of obedience?
The thing is, the dilemma Joseph faced was the same dilemma that Matthew’s first readers faced. They would have been pulled in two different directions by their Jewish roots and their Christian experiences. How are people to be righteous, in the old way or in the new? How are we to be righteous? Matthew’s answer is clear later on in the book: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20, NRSV).
Joseph is transformed by the announcement of the angel. He is astoundingly responsive to this new and very strange thing that God is doing. He chose to follow the new commandment instead of the old. He took Mary as his wife, and he named the child Jesus. Joseph, as well as Mary, is an example of true righteousness and faithful discipleship. He moved from his own understanding of Righteousness to God’s understanding of righteousness. And I think that’s what Matthew hopes all of his readers will do. The kind of discipleship that Joseph models for us is not the kind that goes and looks up a rule in a book and then does “the right thing.” Rather, Joseph models the kind of discipleship that wrestles with the complexities of an issue, listens for the voice of God in our midst, and does God’s thing.
To be a faithful disciple we really do have to prayerfully wrestle with and seek to discover what God is doing in the difficult situations we face. How is God at work in these tough situations to show mercy and saving power? I don’t think that being righteous is as simple as being pure and good in some abstract sense, but I have come to believe that genuine righteousness involves joining with God to do God’s work in the world in God’s way.
Who could blame Joseph if he had decided to stick with the established law, the rule written by Moses himself at God’s own bidding, and dumped Mary? Everyone in Mary and Joseph’s hometown would have said, It was the right thing to do. But our story in Matthew’s Gospel would be very different.
Instead, Joseph surely surprised and shocked everyone by taking Mary as his wife and adopting her child as his own, even giving the child a name like Jesus, which is the Greek form of Joshua, meaning God helps or God saves. After declaring the name Joseph is to give to this child of Mary, the angel says, “for he will save his people from their sins.”
In addition, Matthew provides another name for us: Emmanuel, which means God is with us. Jesus is able to help and to save because in him God is with us. Only God can save us from our sins and, in Jesus, God is with us as a savior.
The explanation of Jesus’ name is an important part of Matthew’s Gospel. It is Matthew’s Jesus who tells us to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. It is Matthew’s Jesus who tells us to be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect, to not be anxious about our basic physical needs and seek the kingdom of heaven. When we read Matthew’s Gospel it is easy to become overwhelmed by the demands of discipleship that Jesus places upon us and wonder whether or not our obvious shortcomings and failures can ever be overcome.
But at the outset, before all these demands of discipleship are made, we are told that the Jesus who will make these demands is the one who will save his people from their sins. The name of Jesus assures us of forgiveness and of presence. God is with us, and God will save us from our sins. That’s the definition of Good News.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!