The Faithfulness of Joseph
Dr. Philip W. McLarty
I take it you’ve noticed that the reading of the Christmas story this year is from Matthew’s gospel. We heard Luke’s version last year. You may not be aware of this, but there are actually three versions of the Christmas story. There’s the Gospel According to Matthew, where we get Joseph’s dream and the wise men and the star in the East. Then there’s the Gospel According to Luke, where we get the shepherds and the angels and the fact that there was no room in the inn. And then there’s the Gospel According to Hallmark, in which we get a smorgasbord of all the above including the wise men, the shepherds, a host of angels, lowing cattle and a partridge in a pear tree.
If you’d like to see a visual representation of the Hallmark version, just drive by the house near the intersection of Edgewood and East 16th Streets. In addition to Santa, Frosty, Rudolph and the other reindeer, it includes Mickey, Pluto and Donald Duck. There’s also a nativity scene, but you’ll have to look hard to find it.
The Hallmark version is the most popular because it gives us the whole nine yards, but it’s not true to the text. Combining Matthew and Luke is like mixing Shakespeare and Chaucer. They’re similar, but not quite the same. So, I prefer to take the gospels one at a time. We heard Luke’s account last year. This year, our focus is on Matthew.
Besides, I wanted to take a moment to consider the faithfulness of Joseph. We hear a lot about Mary, and rightly so. She was, after all, the mother of Jesus, the only person constant in the life of Jesus from the cradle to the grave. But what do we know about Joseph? In all the New Testament he never utters a word. Yet, he’s one of the principle figures in the Christmas drama. And so, let’s take just a moment to give Joseph his due.
Tradition has it that Joseph was a simple man of an honorable trade: A carpenter from Nazareth. Sometimes you see Sunday school pictures showing him in a wood shop making furniture. But “carpenter” in Joseph’s day referred to a wide range of trades. Joseph could have just as easily worked with metal or stone, as with wood. The regional capital, Sepphoris, was under construction during this time, and it was within walking distance of Nazareth. It’s possible that Joseph was one of the stone masons there.
In any case, craftsmen worked with strong shoulders and callused hands. They were educated by apprenticeship. Their place was respectable but not on one of the higher rungs of the social ladder. Remember the flap in the synagogue in Nazareth when Jesus preached his first sermon? The elders raised their eyebrows and asked, “Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judah, and Simon?” (Mark 6:3)
Jesus’ father was neither a rabbi nor a scribe nor one of the civic leaders. He had but two qualifications to play a part in the Christmas drama – he was a descendent of David and, for whatever reason, he was God’s choice. In this regard, I like to think that Joseph is someone with whom we can all identify – a common man who dared to be obedient to God’s will for his life.
His place in the Christmas story, of course, is that of Mary’s husband. According to Matthew, Joseph and Mary were “betrothed,” but not yet married. William Barclay explains that there were three steps in a Jewish marriage: The engagement, which was often arranged by the parents through a matchmaker when the boy and girl were children; the betrothal, which was a formal ratification of the marriage-to-be, usually done a year before the couple was married; and the wedding itself, which lasted a whole week, at which time the marriage was consummated. During the betrothal, the couple was legally bound to each other so that, if the man died before the actual wedding took place, the woman was considered to be a widow. They were actually referred to as husband and wife, though they refrained from having sexual relations.
It’s at this particular stage in their relationship that Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant and, though the scripture is not specific at this point, I think it’s safe to say he probably blew a gasket. Like any husband-to-be, Joseph would’ve been beside himself to learn that his fiancé was pregnant. He would’ve been angry and upset, to say the least. After all, if Mary were pregnant, the only explanation would’ve been that she’d been unfaithful, in which case, he had a legal right to have her stoned to death.
It’s at this point that Joseph proves his faithfulness, first to Mary and then, more importantly, to God. According to Matthew, when Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant, he was “not willing to make her a public example, intended to put her away secretly.” (Matthew 1:19)
Joseph was a man of quiet strength. He was a man of integrity, true to his convictions. Yet, he was compassionate and considerate of others. He found himself in a no-win situation. He couldn’t, in good conscience, go on with the wedding; yet, he couldn’t bring himself to humiliate Mary either, much less put her to death.
Breaking off the relationship, but not making a big deal of it, seemed to be the most honorable thing to do, and if Joseph’s part in the Christmas pageant ended here, we could understand and respect him as a man of faith.
But there’s more. According to Matthew, Joseph had a dream in which an angel of the Lord appeared to him and told him that the child in Mary’s womb was of the Holy Spirit and that he should become as a father to the child.
Now, it’d be tempting for us, reading the story some two thousand years after the fact – knowing the rest of the story, as it were – simply to say, “Well, there you have it.” The angel explained everything.
But then, we’ve all had dreams, haven’t we? And we know how bizarre and elusive dreams can be. I don’t know many people who make major life decisions based upon what they think they saw or heard in a dream. Do you? Yet, according to Matthew, Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. The scripture says he “took his wife to himself; and didn’t know her sexually until she had brought forth her firstborn son.” (Matthew 1:25)
And then, in one further act of faithfulness and obedience to God, Joseph publicly named the child. Matthew says simply, “he named him Jesus.” In so doing, he claimed the child as his own and gave him the benefit of a noble ancestry, making him a descendent of the house of David. Because of the faithfulness of Joseph, Jesus would have a father and Joseph would have a place in the drama of God’s salvation.
I had a friend years ago whose girlfriend got pregnant. Naturally, he assumed he was the father. But the scuttlebutt around school was that she’d been seeing other guys, and that my friend wasn’t the father after all. Of course, back then we didn’t have the benefit of paternity testing, so there wasn’t any way to know for sure, but there it was enough to give him an out, if he wanted it. He weighed the pros and cons and decided to ask his girlfriend to marry him. She accepted, and they got married and shortly after, she gave birth to a daughter who quickly became – and is, to this day – the apple of his eye. At the time, the thought of getting married and becoming a parent was the farthest thing from his mind; yet, I think he’d be the first to tell you that, beyond all of his many accomplishments, it was in becoming a father to this little girl that he found his true vocation in life.
When I think about my friend, I’m reminded of the faithfulness of Joseph. It has something to do with getting your own ego out of the way and putting others first. It’s an exercise in humility and it’s based on a simple trust that, by God’s grace, all things really do work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to his purposes. (Romans 8:28)
To the world, the faithfulness of Joseph may seem foolish, but to those who are willing to follow his example and surrender their wills to the will of God, the faithfulness of Joseph is not simply a way of pleasing God; it’s a way of fulfilling your own life’s destiny.
I don’t know of a better way to model the faithfulness of Joseph than to start with the prayer of Adelaide Pollard who wrote,
“Have Thine own way, Lord, have Thine own way;
Thou art the potter, I am the clay;
mold me and make me after Thy will,
while I’m waiting, yielded and still.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright 2010, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.