“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. His mother Mary was engaged to marry Joseph, but before they married, she learned she was pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because Mary’s husband, Joseph, was a good man, he did not want to disgrace her in public, so he planned to divorce her secretly. After Joseph considered these things, an angel of the Lord came to him in a dream. The angel said, ‘Joseph, descendant of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the baby in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins’.” (Matthew 1:18-25)
As I read the birth narratives from the comfort of my living room I’m struggling with the possibility that we may so sanitize this story we end up imagining something that never really happened. This doesn’t shock us the way it would a first century Jewish reader. This is especially true of Joseph. Take his wanting to divorce Mary “quietly” upon learning of her being pregnant “because he was a righteous man.” That would come across as scandalous to Jewish readers. Divorce in Joseph’s day was a “public” event. There was no quiet way to go about it. And a “righteous man” would presumably do what the Law of Moses (Leviticus 20:10) specified in this case, namely, expose Mary’s (obviously) adulterous behavior to public judgment and have her stoned. Not a story swept clean of the agonizing mess of faith.
What else is Joseph “considering” in v. 20? But he’s caught in the drama of the unprecedented, the drama of God doing the unimaginable. And he doesn’t have the advantage of having been previously visited by an angel to prepare him for what’s to come. No, he learns of Mary’s pregnancy from Mary, who no doubt relayed the details of Gabriel’s visit. But though Mary has Gabriel’s word to go on, Joseph has only Mary’s word. It’s only “after he had considered” these things (some read “while he considered” but the point is the same) that Joseph is then visited in a dream (only a dream?) by an angel who tells him, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” What’s that tell you? It tells me that Joseph was afraid to take Mary as his wife, that he had decided to divorce Mary and move on with his life. Had Joseph in fact decided to go through with the marriage, he would hardly need an angel to tell him not to be afraid to do so.
These are all real people with real lives trying to figure faith out in unprecedented circumstances. They’re not actors playing rehearsed roles on a stage. What Joseph’s struggle tells me is that faith isn’t a superpower that gets downloaded into us from heaven when we do everything right. Faith is a gutsy, risky, heart-wrenching and messy path to take. And when we honestly struggle but still incline to take the next exit ramp off of faith’s demanding route, God is able to reassure us and strengthen our faith if our wills and hearts are truly his. In this case the outcome was the birth of God, and that gives me a whole new appreciation for Joseph.
Prayer: I’m humbled, God, that you choose real people to partner with you in unprecedented ways. Help me give my mundane life to you in the risky adventure of faith.