He has no recorded words in the Bible. He is not thought of as Jesus’ real father. He is completely off the scene by the time Jesus’ ministry begins. He is not mentioned by later New Testament writers, either in the book of Acts, in Paul’s writings, or in the other epistles. Joseph is a silent witness. And yet, this silent witness is a portrait of faithful, God-honoring living in the most trying of times. His shadow falls over the story of Jesus’ birth and we can learn a lot about what it means to be a God-follower from Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus.
When I have taught the Bible to teens and elementary-aged kids, experiences where I had a limited amount of time, I zeroed in on two words – actions and attitudes. I figured that if I could get students to focus on what they did and how they carried themselves as they did it, then they could consciously strive to live as Jesus lived. Actions and attitudes: you don’t need to memorize passages of scripture or recite creedal formulas. You don’t need to speak in public or to persuade people with your erudite arguments. You simply do things that help and encourage others – actions; and, you do what you do in a way that shows love and conveys compassion – attitudes.
Though silent, Joseph, through his actions and his attitude, says a lot.
What jumps out from Matthew’s storytelling? “The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (1:18). What stands out as Matthew weaves this tale?
He assumes the listener already knows the story. He’s not so much telling us something we haven’t heard before as he is giving his own commentary, his own slant on it. I say this because he lays out something remarkable in a concise, unassuming way. She was pregnant from the Holy Spirit? That doesn’t happen every day. Yet in Matthew’s prose, it sounds unremarkable. It is as if this miracle pregnancy is but a prelude to something more significant that Matthew wants us to know.
Premarital pregnancy was an absolute scandal in which no one would believe the excuse, “Well, God did it!” Yeah right, Mary! Please! God did it? Try another one! The law for the Jews was clear. Deuteronomy 22:23: “If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman.” As Joseph’s betrothed, Mary was seen as his wife in the eyes of the community. Even though their relationship had not been consummated, they were viewed as married. The law of Deuteronomy 22 applied and was final.
Why such an extreme penalty? The end of Deuteronomy 22:23 – the last phrase of the verse – gives the reason. Both man and woman shall die; “thus you shall purge evil from Israel.” We minimize sexual trysts. She was just having fun. Or, we romanticize them. She was forced into a marriage she didn’t want. When she cheated on her husband, she was with the man she truly loved. Either way, the unplanned pregnancy is easily ended with a quick trip to the abortion clinic. In our cultural ethos, to make a fuss about adultery and abortion is silly and those who do are prudes, too old fashioned to keep up with the ways things are today.
This casual dismissal of fidelity and of life is a sign on our culture’s sexual deviance. Abortion was not an option or even a consideration in the first century. And adultery and sexual misconduct wasn’t an offense or a violation. It was much worse. It was considered evil and was to be purged from the community of God’s people.
Matthew writes with this understanding in mind, an understanding his readers would immediately grasp. Before she was married, Mary was already pregnant. That’s a big deal, a matter of life or death not just for her but for the entire community. Yet Matthew passes over it so quickly, it is clear he find something else in the story even more significant. That more significant truth comes in the very next verse.
“Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (1:19). Because his words weren’t recorded, we don’t know what kind of cursing, ranting, and railing Joseph. His wife-to-be had cheated on him, or so he thought. He surely wronged. Maybe heartbroken too? He could have had her stoned and gotten universal agreement in the community. She would be set apart. Every adult person in the village would surround her. And they’d fire stones at her until she was dead. Joseph could have done that.
But, Matthew tells us he was a ‘righteous man.’ What sign indicated his moral fiber? It was his willingness to discount the law in Deuteronomy and instead put her away quietly. Even though Joseph never heard Jesus preach a sermon, he realized that love was behind the law of God and there were cases where loving dictated not heeding the letter of the law. How do we know Joseph was righteous? We know because he was willing to protect Mary from what he believed were the consequences of her actions.
He had nothing to gain. In a culture stooped in poverty, a man’s riches came in the number of children he sired. Now here was Joseph planning to gently break things off with the woman he believed had forsaken him for someone else. We should point out, Mary was not unfaithful. But from where Joseph stood, that’s what it looked like. With nothing to gain, he let compassion for her be what drove his actions. His attitude was one of love.
It was to this man – a man hurt, but resolved to care for Mary – to this man the angel appeared. Joseph already lived his faith when the angel laid out the entire plan. Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and the child, a son, was to be name “Jesus,” which means ‘salvation.’ His birth fulfilled the words of the prophet Isaiah. His coming fit within the story of God’s salvation of the world through the people of Israel.
After’s Joseph’s big moment – what to do when I find out my fiancé is pregnant – things moved very quickly through the narrative. After compassion drove this man to care for Mary, he had so many dreams we wouldn’t blame him if he was afraid to go to sleep at night. First, once settled in Bethlehem, he and Mary had visitors – strange, wealthy astronomers who believed the birth was foretold in the stars. These exotic men gave gifts which instantly made Mary and Joseph rich.
However, before he could even design the deluxe carpenter shot he dreamed about, he was warned in a dream that Herod was going to kill every child in Bethlehem. So, Joseph took Mary and baby Jesus and their newly acquired wealth to the land of Israel’s ancient enemies – Egypt. We don’t know how long they were there. More importantly, upon arrival, Joseph didn’t know how long he would be there. But, one night, the angel appeared in his dreams once again to tell him to go home. Joseph, as he had every other time, obeyed. However, fear drove him to settle in Nazareth instead of Bethlehem. Herod was dead, yes, but his insane son Archelaus was on the throne and he was just as dangerous.
Then we flip to Matthew chapter 3, 27 years have passed, and Joseph is never mentioned again. I suppose that if we had his words, we’d see how much is like any of us – a flawed human being who cursed a blue streak when he hammered his thumb instead of the nail, drowned in his own doubt of the word of God, and yelled in impatience at preteen Jesus. Imagine the way you sometimes blunder. Joseph surely made some of the same mistakes. That’s why I find it so encouraging to focus on his attitudes and his actions.
You and I can put love and compassion as a top priority the way Joseph did. You and I let our hearts be governed by love and mercy and that love and mercy can embolden us to follow God’s lead even when doing so seems insane. Joseph had never heard the gospel from Jesus, yet he understood it because he was intent on being true to God. Whatever limits we have in our knowledge, we can set ourselves to obey the Lord, have attitudes of love, and those attitudes can drive us to be witnesses testifying to God’s goodness as we live our daily lives.
Joseph didn’t know he was going to be the adoptive father of the son of God who would grow up to be the Savior of the world. He didn’t know he was going to meet Magi from Persia, the wise men, and be hunted by a crazed, murderous king. He thought he was a simple carpenter from an insignificant village marrying a simple girl from the same village.
We don’t know what will come about in our lives in the next few hours or in the week to come. It might be a Christmas week like many Christmas’s of the past. Or something completely unexpected may pop up – something that changes us. Either way, we go forth with an attitude of love and committed to actions that point the world to Jesus. As with Joseph, in our lives, God takes it from there.