Sunday, December 18, 2011

Joseph Finch

Matthew 1: 18-25

You know, he didn’t have to.

From everything we have in the Bible, and little enough it is, Joseph didn’t have to stick around. Until he was visited by the angel, Joseph was going to do what any man of that time would do, when presented with the fact that the woman he was engaged to be married to, a marriage that was probably arranged, or at least strongly approved of my both families, was pregnant. He was even expecting to do it in a very tasteful way, not by dragging her into the square and condemning her publicly. He was just going to quietly “dismiss” her.

Then an angel shows up. Well, not in the way that an angel shows up for Mary, but for Joseph, the angel shows up in a dream. “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, the angel says, because she’s been given this special job, the baby is no ordinary baby, but she’s going to need support.

Remember, we talk about how Mary was a teenager.

In those days, life was different; people grew up faster, and lived a lot shorter than we do now. Teenager in the sense we understand it now was a lot different than then. When you turned twelve or thirteen back then, you weren’t just considered an adult as a rite of passage, you really were an adult. You’d only live till your forties or fifties anyway. But thirteen is still thirteen, whether society understands adolescence ending at thirteen, or whether it ends at thirty, which it seems to do these days.

When you combine that with the much reduced role women had in society compared with our day, the reality of that, then as now, is that Mary was going to need help, protection, care, and everything else as a new mother. I am not sure where we get the idea the Joseph was significantly older than she was, and frankly, I don’t think it matters. Mary was about to have a baby before she was married. To do it as a single mom would have been impossible in that society,

Plus there’s the thing that is needed, so much so that both Luke and Matthew make it a priority to name-the baby, the son of God, God with us, has to come out of the line of David. Matthew spends almost all of chapter 1 covering the genealogy of Joseph, and Luke makes sure we know that Joseph’s proper census place isn’t Nazareth, where he lives, but Bethlehem, which is the ancient seat of his family, the family of David.

Joseph accepts the angel’s authority, and does not dismiss Mary, but stays with her to give the baby safety, support, and most importantly for the gospel writers, his name.

When we think about manhood these days, there are a lot of images that pull at us. There’s the old John Wayne image, where the man acts on behalf of a code, and moves about untethered by attachments to community, romance or duty. He has his own code, and his sense of right and wrong are often simple and starkly defined.

We have about us as well the image of a man as the supreme shark, and the mark of a man’s virility is how much money he can make or how successful he is on a field, pitch, court or course, how ruthless he can be in pursuit of his goals, and his leadership is the kind of leadership that keeps score. When he wins, you lose, and that’s the way it is supposed to be.

Joseph, holds up for us another style of manhood, one that we don’t see often, but in comparison I often compare to the character of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Here is a man who is a leader in the community, and is known for his wisdom and his gentleness, his attention to duty and his competency, as well as his ability to stand for what is right and wrong.

We don’t know about Joseph other than these two short passages in the beginning of only two gospels. There is no birth story in John, or in Mark. Joseph doesn’t appear again after Jesus going missing when he’s twelve, the story of them finding him listening and talking in temple. Joseph is not present at the crucifixion, as Mary is. It seems Joseph’s importance was primarily to be Jesus’ protector, which includes taking him to Egypt when Herod commands that all boy babies in Galilee under the age of two be killed.

That and to make sure that Jesus is adopted into the line of David.

Here’s to all the men who do the right thing, like Joseph. Who listen to the angels and to God, and sometimes do what isn’t expected, but act in the name of love and devotion. Who, in an age where God is foreign to so many, recognize that the approval of society is sometimes not the best way to go, especially when God calls on you to do something else.

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