There was no indication that the baby Mary would bear would be anything other than fully healthy. That was not the issue. But the prospective father, Joseph, still faced a problem. Four of them, in fact, that cast doubt on whether he could accept the baby...
July 30, 2023
Dr. Todd R. Wright
We move this week, from Luke’s Advent account to Matthew’s. And Matthew has a very different angle on the Advent story. He focuses on Joseph rather than Mary. Specifically, he presents Joseph as someone who must make a difficult decision with no good options.
Matthew writes, “when Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child.” Suddenly Joseph was forced to wrestle with the gap between the future he imagined and this problem, this betrayal, this baby that was not his.
Could he accept it? Could he love it? Or should he turn his back on both Mary and the baby?
In Andrew Solomon’s award winning book, Far From the Tree, he writes,
“The timeworn adage says the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, meaning that a child resembles his or her parents, [but what of the children who] have fallen elsewhere – some a couple of orchards away [-- children who are] deaf or dwarfs, have Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, or disabilities; [children] conceived in rape or who commit crimes; [children who] are transgender [or gay?]”
Solomon writes about such children and the struggle of their parents to fully accept them because he was such a child. At two it became apparent that he had dyslexia. His mother worked with him and by the time he was six he showed advanced reading skills.
His personal challenge did not tend there. He writes, “The standards of perpetual triumph were high in our house, and that early victory over dyslexia was formative: with patience, love, intelligence, and will, we had trounced a neurological abnormality. Unfortunately, it set the stage for our later struggles by making it hard to believe that we couldn’t reverse the creeping evidence of another perceived abnormality – my being gay.”
There was no indication that the baby Mary would bear would be anything other than fully healthy. That was not the issue. But the prospective father, Joseph, still faced a problem. Four of them, in fact, that cast doubt on whether he could accept the baby:
Deuteronomy said that a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, could be stoned to death if found unfaithful.
One scholar writes, “By the time of Jesus, it appears that some of the religious requirements surrounding infidelity may have softened; but, with that said, ‘softened’ isn't really the right word for it. Because the punishment of death had been replaced by a formal, public renunciation of the woman – a ritual that would have shamed her and her family for life.”
So, if Joseph kept to the law, he should divorce Mary. She and the baby would survive, but they would both suffer the consequences. They would be labeled as shameful. Her family might disown her. That would likely mean poverty and hunger and worse.
Joseph also had to weigh the fact that he would not escape the resulting waves of shame. His reputation would be sullied no matter what he did. Even if he distanced himself, her scandal would leave him the butt of jokes. And if he married her, an unfaithful woman, he would be tainted by her sin. So much for being known as a righteous man.
Third, if he goes forward with the marriage and accepts the child as his own, he will be welcoming an outsider into his own family tree. Or as one preacher puts it, “In patriarchal terms, Mary’s son stands to inherit the birthright of Joseph’s own biological child.” Kind of like Jacob stealing what rightfully belonged to Esau for a bowl of red soup!
Finally, there is the economic angle.
Marriages in the first century were not love matches. They were economic arrangements between two families. They transferred wealth, or attempted to preserve a hold on lands, or extended families through the birth of heirs. They were functional.
In her book The First Advent in Palestine, Kelley Nikondeha writes, “Breaking off the marriage at this point involved matters of law … A man in Joseph’s position could ask for economic compensation in addition to the divorce – the impounding of the dowry and possible return of the bride price.”
If Joseph divorced her, “that would require public conversations with community elders and make known Mary’s compromised condition. A quiet divorce, would avoid compounding her shame, even if it meant forfeiture of his dowry.”
So Joseph wrestled with what to do, factoring in the law, his reputation, the impact on his line of descendants, and economics.
Please do not miss the wonder of what Joseph chooses to do:
A man who always colors inside the lines decides to skirt the law’s demand and show mercy.
A man who lives in a society that values honor willingly embraces secondhand shame.
A man set to add one more “begat” to his genealogy, is ready to walk away.
A man who, like his fellow countrymen, is oppressed by Rome and burdened by its taxes, goes against his own economic interests because he values Mary more than a dowry.
And all of this is before he even hears from the angel!
When he learns that God is at work in this situation, he is even more bold!
He decides to take Mary as his wife, no matter what the law said.
He decides that they will face whatever shame comes their way together.
He decides to name this son Jesus, adopting him into the line that started with Abraham and
Isaac and Jacob and passed through Tamar and Rahab and Ruth, through David and Bathsheba.
If God can work through their scandals to bring blessing, then God can do so again!
He decides to break from his namesake Joseph, who, for all the good he did as Pharoah’s food czar, could not imagine opposing the economy of empire. During the famine, he made Pharaoh richer and contributed to the enslavement of his own people, even his own kin.
Our Joseph will not sell his soul. Mary is worth more to him than a few shekels, even in an economy where every shekel counts.
Nikondeha asks, “What did it mean for Jesus to be shaped by this landscape, this economy, this political environment? To be born into anxious times and surrounded by family eking out a living under Roman occupation? How did that form his imagination? After his mother’s milk ceased, did he suffer from malnourishment like other neighborhood children? Did he overhear conversations riddled with fears of losing homes or jobs? Were his uncles detained by soldiers? Did his dark skin, Galilean accent, and Jewish mannerisms make him the target for ridicule or suspicion?”
Probably. But more important than the shaping force of the landscape, or economy, or politics was the molding force of Jospeh’s decisions – his faith, his compassion, his love.
Andrew Solomon writes some parents are broken by the experience of having children that are considered not “normal”. But others find themselves “grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid.” May we follow in their footsteps, in Joseph’s footsteps, so that God’s Advent plan may go forward. Amen.
 “The Flight to Egypt” by Sliman Mansour
 Page 5
 Page 7
 See Dt. 22:23-27
 From “Expecting Christmas” by Maxwell Grant, 12/22/13
 From Katie Hines-Shah’s comments on the text for the Christian Century, 11/22/16
 Here and in the next paragraph, from The first Advent in Palestine, page 118
 Ibid, page 127