Isaiah 62, 11-12 + Psalm 97 + Titus 3, 4-7 + Matthew 1, 18-25
St Francis of Assisi Parish, Castle Rock, CO
Those of you looking at missals or hymnals know that a different Gospel has been proclaimed from the one publishers expected. Since I am new to some of you, I have taken the liberty of doing something new by choosing the Gospel from the Vigil of Christmas since none of you were here for the Vigil of Christmas. As far as I can tell, there wasn’t one, so Matthew’s Gospel gets lost in the scheduling of our lives, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. When the church arranged the readings for this feast, the plan was for Matthew to start and John to finish. So, I want to take you to the beginning.
Because we know how the story turns out, we do not hear this story the way people did for whom Matthew is writing. They knew nothing about how it ends or what is being revealed. So every detail Matthew provides was something new, curious, and thought provoking. We fail to sense the anxiety, the fear, the conflict, and the possible consequences unfolding in this moment. Our romantic approach to these events and sometimes our piety overlooks troubling elements of the story that are part of the message. There is more being said here than what John’s Gospel says so starkly, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.”
In the center of this story stands Joseph who having not been conceived without sin, having not been called “Blessed” by an angel is more like us than the Virgin Mary. I’ve always thought we ought to pay a lot more attention to Joseph than we have historically. Luke’s Gospel is the version that has captured the imagination of artists, poets, and songwriters. Luke’s Gospel has more to say about Mary than the other Gospels. The cast of characters in Matthew’s Gospel is more simple. Have you noticed that no one ever puts on a play or pageant using Matthew’s Gospel version? It would be very short. There is no music, no choir of angels, no sheep, no shepherds!
At the heart of this gospel we have “an upright man.” More literal translations call him a “righteous man.” At the heart of this Gospel there is a serious conflict and a powerful lesson. It is a conflict that weaves its way through the life of Jesus and his struggle with the Scribes and Pharisees. It is conflict found in our own lives. Joseph’s uneasy story about what to do is part of the message here. Joseph begins to redefine what it means to be “upright” or “righteous.”
Simply put, before Joseph being “upright” or “righteous” meant one thing: following the rules and obeying the laws. Nothing else mattered. The consequences of strictly following the rules were irrelevant. After Joseph, being “upright” and “righteous” means something else.
Joseph should have followed the law and put Mary away, meaning publically breaking off the engagement and leaving her to live with the consequence of having a child that was not his. What is he to say to people: “An angel told me what to do”? No one is going to believe in talking angels, a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, who ever heard of that before? No way! If he did not follow the rules, he would have been cut off from everyone, no friends, no business for the shop, his reputation would have been ruined, and he would no longer be admired and respected as a lover and follower of the Torah. His whole life would have been trashed. His decision, his willingness to sacrifice everything by doing what is right rather than follow the rules is major part of this story.
Do you ever wonder why God waited and let Joseph struggle with all this stuff and then sends the angel? It would have been a lot easier if the angel had come first to explain everything and remove the anxiety. It is possible though that anxiety removal is not God’s number one goal. It is possible that in getting his world turned upside down, in having to struggle between what he thought he should (follow the rules) and what he ought to do (be merciful), God was leading him to a new understanding of what it means to be “upright” and “righteous.”
When Joseph was long dead and Jesus was a grown man, he taught in Matthew’s Gospel (5, 20) “Unless your righteousness passes that of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the law you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus must have been thinking that he had seen the better kind of righteousness firsthand in Joseph.
God had a reason for this odd, painful, lonely way to start a family. Perhaps God still calls people to be willing to die to reputation, status, and comfort for the sake of love. When Joseph decided to proceed to take Mary for his wife, he thought it was the end of his being known as a righteous man. He gave up concern about what other people would think, and realized that just following the rules is not always the right thing to do. He did not know fully that the child he would adopt would bring to the human race a new kind of righteousness. This is a big part of what we celebrate this Christmas.