Last Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, was Gaudete Sunday, a day traditionally devoted to Mary the mother of Jesus. Given the content of today’s Gospel reading, you might think that the fourth and final Sunday of Advent is devoted to Joseph, the foster father of Jesus. But you’d be wrong. Joseph does have a feast day, March 19 in the Western Church and the Sunday after Christmas in the Eastern Orthodox Church. But he generally is given short shrift in the Church. Other days dedicated to Joseph have come and gone or have been reduced to the lowest rank among saints’ days.
Of course remarkably little is known about Joseph and he eventually disappears altogether from the Gospel narratives, giving rise to the various legends that he was much older than Mary and must have died well before the crucifixion and Resurrection. One medieval Christmas carol, the Cherry Tree Carol, even states that “Joseph was an old man, and an old man was he.” It’s based on an apocryphal writing known as Pseudo-Matthew, and it paints a very different picture of Joseph from the one we will find in the canonical Gospels.
So what do we know about Joseph? My wife Gayle developed an interest in Joseph and even asked a composer friend to consider writing a piece of music about him. The piece turned into a chamber opera, though the librettist gave up on writing an entire opera on the Biblical material alone and ended up weaving it together with extensive extra-Biblical legends while also inventing a few new ones. Today we will restrict ourselves to what the Bible actually tells us about this important if overshadowed man who was entrusted by God with the responsibility both for Mary and for the raising of her Son, Jesus.
I would love to suspend the sermon at this point and have you watch with me a wonderful 2006 movie called “The Nativity Story,” which brings Joseph to life in a way that is very vivid yet tries to be faithful to what we think we know about him. But despite the legendary length of my sermons, the movie lasts about 101 minutes and some of you would be gone long before the Eucharist. Still, I would like to recommend that you see the movie this Christmastide, as it’s quite inspiring.
Returning to the Biblical material, the earliest mention of Joseph’s name chronologically speaking occurs in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke, where it’s established that Jesus was in the line of King David through His human foster-father. Paul, in our reading this morning from the very beginning of his epistle to the Romans, finds it important to say that Jesus was born “of a descendant of David according to the flesh,” though he omits Joseph’s name. And note that the angel of the Lord addresses Joseph as “Son of David,” a point of contact with the genealogy that immediately precedes this event.
The very first time that we actually encounter Joseph himself is in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, where we find him trying to sort out just what is happening to the woman to whom he is engaged. We think right away of many things that we’ve learned about Joseph from movies, books, carols, apocryphal gospels, legends, mistranslations, psychological projections and legends. Many of these give us a picture of a man whose was somewhere between confused and absolutely furious over Mary’s pregnancy. But this is not at all the Biblical depiction of Joseph. First of all, we are told that he was “a righteous man.” That’s the incredibly important starting point for how we are to regard and understand Joseph.
Much is made of the fact that when the angel Gabriel came to Mary with the Annunciation, he said, “Hail, Mary, full of grace,” by which we understand Gabriel to have been declaring that this young girl was already full of grace even before the miraculous special grace of God was bestowed on her by virtue of her becoming the Christ-bearer. But her husband-to-be is described as a righteous man, and in its own way this may be almost equally important. That he was “righteous” certainly dictated what he first decided to do about Mary.
Again, there is much more in the word “righteous” than meets the eye of a 21st-century reader. In Jewish circles, the term for the righteous, the tzadikim, was not used loosely to refer to anyone deemed to be a good person. It was reserved for those who exhibited a special level of godliness in their character and behavior, persons whose holy lives revealed a closeness to God Himself and a readiness to hear and act on God’s leading. Shneur Zalman, founder of a branch of Hassidic Judaism, wrote that the true meaning of tzadik “can only be applied to those who have completely sublimated their natural ‘animal’ or ‘vital’ soul inclinations into holiness, so that they experience only love and awe of God, without material temptations. Hence, a tzadik serves a ‘vehicle’ or merkavah [מרכבה] to God and has no ego or self-consciousness. Note that a person cannot attain such a level, rather it is granted from on High or one is so born.”
And here is where the possible mistranslation, or even a possible double mistranslation, comes into view. According to Origen, Jerome, Aquinas and many others, righteous Joseph knew very well what sort of person Mary was, and he never ever suspected her of adultery. Thus his reaction had nothing to do with submitting Mary to public disgrace, an English word that is not even the primary meaning of the Greek word; rather it had to do with his not wishing to expose her or to make a show of her. And while the other verb often translated as “divorce,” does indeed have that technical and specific usage, it far more often means only “to put away, send away, or hide away.” And so what could be meant here is that righteous Joseph, even before he had been enlightened by the angel of the Lord, may already have determined to hide Mary away in order to protect her from public display.
As we know, had Mary’s pregnancy been made known and had adultery been suspected, Mary could have been stoned to death according to Jewish law and custom. But Joseph determined to avoid this by caring for Mary secretly, the other very important word in this verse. Everything taken together, this verse in English could read, “Joseph, being a righteous man and not wanting to subject Mary to public display, planned to hide Mary away in private.” That’s a lot different from deciding to divorce her, or to annul their engagement, which absolutely would have left her subject to exposure, ridicule, shame and probable death! Instead, he decided to offer her protection in private.
Of course I could be wrong and the traditional interpretation could be correct: that Joseph did indeed suspect Mary of adultery and decided to send her packing somewhere. In either case, Matthew tells us that while Joseph was still hatching his plan, an angel of the Lord came to him in a dream and clued him in on the miraculous plan of God for Mary. This was the first of four dreams in which God spoke to Joseph with revelations that guided his decision-making. Once again we see how special Joseph was in God’s eyes. Mary and most other Biblical characters had only one revelatory dream, at least only one that is recorded in Scripture. But Joseph has this dream, another one when God warns him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt, a third one when he is told to return to Israel, and a fourth one when he is told to settle in Galilee and not in Judea.
Then immediately the angel says “Do not be afraid.” This is a statement common to many angelic appearances – understandably, since angelic appearances have a rather scary, other-worldly aspect to them. Mary was told not to be afraid, here Joseph is told the same, and so also are the shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night. Specifically, Joseph is told not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.
Even if I’m right that his plan had been to hide her away privately, there were good reasons in any of Joseph’s possible plans still to be fearful. The angel is giving him the assurance that all will be well. And since it’s certain humanly speaking that Joseph had questions about Mary’s pregnancy, the angel assures him that Mary’s conception is from the Holy Spirit, that the third Person of the Holy Trinity is Mary’s spouse, and that in this real sense Mary is not just the Christ-bearer but is the very Mother of God, the Theotokos.
The angel tells Joseph the Child’s Name, just as Gabriel had told Zacharias the name of his son, John the Baptist. His Name is to be Jesus, Yeshua, “God saves;” for, says the angel, “He will save His people from their sins.” Then Matthew goes on to give another Name for Yeshua, as prophesied by Isaiah – Immanuel, “God with us.” And what is Joseph’s response to all these astonishing revelations? Obedience. According to the final verses in today’s Gospel, “Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.”
There is another thing we learn about the righteous man, Joseph: his obedience to God’s commands was immediate, unhesitating and complete. Is ours? I suspect that most of us, most of the time, even when God’s revelation to us is crystal clear, take some time to step back and ask our questions, even challenging God, even disputing the truth of God’s revelations whether they come to us through the words of Scripture, the convicting witness of a fellow believer or the witness of the Holy Spirit directly to our own hearts. It’s in our very nature to challenge. We do it routinely with each other, so why would we not also do it with God? We want the answers to all our “why’s” and “why not’s” before we are willing to say “yes” to what God clearly reveals to us. But this was not the case with Joseph. Every time God tells Joseph what to do, this righteous man says “yes.” We have a lot to learn from him.
What else do we know about Joseph? Luke tells us that he was from Nazareth (Luke 2:4), and that, as a man from the house and family of King David, he was required to go to Bethlehem for the census. After the birth of Jesus, Joseph went with Mary to the temple for the presentation and purification rites. Luke tells us that while they were there, they heard the Nunc Dimittis of the aged Simeon who, like Joseph himself, is described as being righteous. Simeon blesses God for allowing him to see the salvation of Israel, God’s Savior, Yeshua, and Joseph and Mary are amazed at his words. Then Simeon blesses them both before they return to their own city of Nazareth.
We have no Biblical account of what happened in the next 12 years of Jesus’ childhood until the entire family goes up to Jerusalem for Passover. It seems right to assume that this was something the Holy Family did routinely in obedience to the law of Moses. This was the particular occasion when Mary and Joseph were on their return journey to Nazareth before they even realized that Jesus had stayed behind to interact with the rabbis. When Mary asks Jesus why He has treated His parents this way, causing them anxiety, Jesus replies that He had to be about His Father’s business, a statement that Luke says neither Joseph nor Mary understood.
Clearly Jesus was not referring to His earthly father’s trade. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a carpenter, a skilled tradesman, not just a handyman with a hammer and saw (Matt. 13:55). Mark indicates that he trained Jesus in his own craft so that Jesus Himself became a carpenter (Mark 6:3). But after this we have not another word about Joseph in all of Scripture. It always has been assumed that Joseph must have died sometime before the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. Other than in Paul’s anonymous reference in Romans, Joseph is never mentioned in any book after the four Gospels. No wonder the Church has relegated him to a very minor role and speaks of him only when reading the birth narratives.
But the data we do have about Joseph is more than sufficient to rescue him from this near oblivion and to heighten our admiration for him.
He was a man who honored God with his righteous, holy life.
He listened intently to God’s voice.
He desired to do what was right.
He obeyed God’s directions without hesitation.
He set an example for his Son of fulfilling righteousness by going up to Jerusalem for the feasts.
He taught his precocious Son the value of hard work and discipline.
In fact, we have not a negative word anywhere about Joseph unless we understand today’s Gospel to mean that at first he may have reacted negatively to Mary’s pregnancy. If so, we are prepared to let him off the hook altogether for a predictably human response. It only took a few words from the angel of the Lord for him to do a 180. He sets an example for us that is hard to follow. And that’s what we need to learn today from our study of Joseph:
- First: if we are to be regarded as righteous in God’s sight, we are to live a life of faith and obedience.
- Second: we should be prepared at all times to hear and obey God’s leading and be quick to do His will.
- Third: we are to “be diligent to present ourselves approved to God as workmen who do not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15).
- And fourth: we are to accept whatever role it is that God has prepared for us to assume, recognizing that it is far more important to be doing God’s will, to be about our heavenly Father’s business, than to be wandering around in our doubts and fears.
in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
We must remember several important things about “righteousness;”
- All our own righteousness is as “filthy rags” to God (Isaiah 64:6).
- We are put right with God, declared righteous, through the work of Christ.
- We remain responsible to live righteous and holy lives, lives that conform to the righteousness of Christ with which we are clothed.
 Dikaios (Greek) = Tzadik (Hebrew) = holy
 Δειγματίσαι (deigmatisai)
 ἀπολῦσαι (apolysai)
 λάθρᾳ (lathra)