Everybody in America knows the Nativity story. The Three Wise Men. Jesus in the manger. Mary, the Virgin Mother. If the Christmas story is a quilt, these people are the stitching that hold it together.
You know who we forget? Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. This guy raised the Messiah and he’s still not the best Joseph in the Bible. (That would be Old Testament Joseph, the hustler who went from the Egyptian prison to the Egyptian palace and set the stage for the book of Exodus.)
New Testament Joseph is the step daddy who never measures up to the real baby daddy – God himself. He doesn’t walk on water like Peter and he doesn’t build churches like Paul. Mary’s Magnificat may be the most eloquent expression of Christian faith in the Bible. Meanwhile, Joseph has no recorded dialogue – anywhere. And Jesus, the son he raised, never even mentions him.
When I was a cocky young man, Joseph was an embarrassment, a nice guy who did the right thing and got nothing in return.
But then that cocky young man grew up. I got married, I started raising a daughter and learned about the Middle Eastern world that produced these people.
Now I see a new truth: The Bible wants us to pay special attention to this man and the radical choices he made. Because without Joseph there is no Jesus at all.
To truly understand Joseph, skip the sanitized Sunday school lessons and the dry Bible commentaries. Take these people off the stained glass windows and put them in the real world, rough edges, blemishes and all. That’s the only way these stories will feel real. The drama we find in the first chapter of Matthew is the same stuff on reality tv today – you might as well call it Love And Hip Hop: Nazareth!
Here’s the story: Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married. They are both solid, upstanding members of their community who come from good families. Joseph’s people are particularly well known – to be a ‘descendant of David’ in Israel is to be a Kennedy in politics or a Manning in pro football. Joseph, we are also told, is ‘faithful to the law.’ This guy follows all the rules and does exactly what people expect: He marries a ‘good’ girl like Mary, who is also connected to the church. Her relative, Elizabeth, is married to a temple priest and as far as anybody knows, Mary is a virgin with no taint of sexual impurity.
So far, so good. But then the Bible jumps from Mayberry to the Maury Povich.
First, we learn Mary – the ‘good’ girl from the ‘good’ family – is pregnant.
Then we learn the couple has not had sex yet.
“Joseph?” the Bible says. “You are NOT the Father!”
For the average Jewish man, this is terrible. For Joseph and his people, it’s a family wide scandal. This is Mary’s sex tape posted on the Son of David family Facebook page. Think about the anger they feel. The shame. The disrespect. Joseph does everything right and it all blows up in his face. What in the world should he do next?
Mosaic law is very clear. Mary must be stoned because sin like this must be punished. Otherwise there is no justice. Imagine the temptation for Joseph – he can have Mary and her bastard child Jesus killed and no one would say a word. With one decision, this no name carpenter in a backwater town in the middle of nowhere can change the whole history of the New Testament.
Joseph shocks everybody. He goes against his family, his community and maybe even his church. Instead of killing Mary, he will ‘divorce her quietly.’ That basically means ‘irreconcilable differences.’ This way, the legal language stays vague and nobody really knows what Mary did.
Joseph might be satisfied, but God does not want half-measures and ‘quiet divorces.’ While Joseph dreams, an angel brings the message: God wants Joseph to marry this woman and raise this son. Then the angel drops another bomb: The baby was conceived by ‘the holy spirit’ and when he grows up, ‘he will save the people from their sins.’
So Joseph is supposed to go back and be like:
“My bad, fam – GOD got my wife pregnant…but I’m gonna raise the kid anyway. Oh! And that legend we had about the Messiah? The one who’s supposed to deliver us from the Romans? Yeaaahhhh, the angel said this is the kid. So…uh….Mazel Tov!?”
That’s exactly the kind of faith God wants and that’s exactly what Joseph does. When he says ‘Yes’, Joseph discovers a better way to please God. A way to use power with mercy and grace, not blind obedience to law. So Mary lives, Jesus is born in the manger, we get our cute Nativity story…
…and then we never hear from Joseph again. At least, not directly. But it can’t be a coincidence that when it comes to women, Jesus is a rule breaker just like his Dad.
When society says: “Women, you only speak to men in your families” Jesus holds a long theological conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well. She is so inspired, she evangelizes her whole town.
When society says: “Women, only touch your spouse!” The ‘unclean’ woman not only touches Jesus – she takes some of his power.
Most women could not study Torah, but Jesus put women in his parables and sent female disciples out into the world. In Luke, we even see women like Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna funding his ministry. According to biblical scholar Walter Wink, Jesus broke the rules in every single encounter with women recorded in the Gospels. Joseph the Father – with his radical, graceful, merciful choices – creates the spiritual space that produces the Jesus we now know and love.
Old folks say when you know better, you do better. Joseph challenges me to do better as a man, a husband and a father. Like Joseph, I need to see women with God’s eyes, even if society says they are inferior or ‘impure.’ I must extend grace and mercy to the weak and vulnerable in my community, even if it costs me. I must submit my ego and power and say ‘Yes’ to God, even when I can’t see a reason. Joseph and his wife chose that path and raised a son who brought Good News to the whole world.
Now I try to follow that path, too, knowing that no choice I make is too small for God. As long as I stay on it, I become a better man and the world becomes a better place around me.