December 22, 2013
4th Sunday of Advent
18 Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
19 Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. 20 Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. 21 She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 "Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means "God is with us." 24 When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.
The community of Matthew had an understanding of marriage that was much different than what is found in most western cultures. Everyday social life was mostly gender divided. Men and women spent little time together, even if they were married. The negotiations that went into arranging a marriage were largely focused on advancing the economic and political influence of the two families. What the individuals felt toward each other was not important. Once the women reached an agreement so that neither family got the better of the other, the groom’s father made appropriate gifts to the bride’s family. Then the bride’s father made the final decision. When all was in place, the marriage was announced. The betrothal began and the bride prepared to leave the house of her father and the groom prepared a place for his bride in the house of his father. There is a temptation to think of the period of betrothal as being like the contemporary period of engagement. This would understate the understanding of betrothal, which was the actual beginning of the marriage process. When the groom was ready he brought the bride from the house of her father to his house and the marriage was consummated. At the base of today’s gospel text is the understanding that a betrothed woman who had relations with a man other than her husband was guilty of the same sin as any married woman.
In the text Joseph is described as a righteous man. Mathew’s community knew this meant that he faithfully observed the law of Abraham. According to Deuteronomy, Joseph should have Mary stoned, because if the child does not belong to Joseph, the pregnancy must be the result of her having committed adultery with another.
"If within the city a man comes upon a maiden who is betrothed, and has relations with her, you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city and there stone them to death: the girl because she did not cry out for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor's wife. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst.” (Deut 22:23-24)
But Joseph decides to be compassionate and divorce her quietly. Then, in a dream, Joseph learns that Mary’s pregnancy is the intervention of the Holy Spirit, that the child is a highly favored male, and that his name is Jesus. Changing one’s course of action because of something that has happened in a dream, even an appearance of an angel from God, would seem to be odd for most contemporary westerners. However, ordinary people of the day believed that God spoke to them in ordinary ways. Dreams were and are part of the ordinary experience of each of us. As a result Joseph takes Mary into his house as his wife and spares her a great amount of social shame. He gives Jesus a name and claims him as his own son. Those are the obvious things. He also gives up his own dreams, plans and hopes to create his own family, name his own son, and have an heir to his family. Instead, he accepts God’s plan. He accepts God’s family and makes it his own. It is one thing to have faith that God is working in this very unique situation, but it is another to surrender one’s own desire and plans for one’s own life in order to cooperate with what God is doing. This is even more difficult when what one desires is very good and honorable.
Matthew helps us see the holiness of a man often dismissed as the foster father of Jesus. Here is a real model of holiness and goodness. Joseph is a great person to reflect on during this advent season as we reflect on our role in living, as fully as possible, the reign of God, here and now.
1. How do you perceive God to be speaking to you?
2. Have you ever changed the direction of your life because you wanted to respond to God’s call or desire for you? If not, do you ever wish you did hear God’s desire for you?
3. Do you know people who have a sense of God speaking to them or revealing God’s desire to them? How does your awareness of them affect your own relationship to God?
4. Are you aware of times when God used highly “suspect” people or situations as a sign of God’s presence or compassion in the world?
5. How difficult do you think it was for Joseph to set aside his desire to be faithful to God by strict observance of the Mosaic law in order to take Mary as his wife and Jesus as his son?
6. Joseph had to let go of his expectation of Mary in order to be able to welcome Mary and Jesus into his house. Do you ever think that God may be calling you to let go of some of your expectations in order to be more present to you?
7. How does Joseph’s decision to take Mary as his wife and Jesus as his son change the course of his life? Would you call his life that of a happy man? What would be other descriptions that fit life from this point forward?
8. Could this text be revealing how God chose to come into our world and how God desires to break into our world over and over again? If this is so, where do you find signs of God breaking into your life?
9. How does this text help you to enter more deeply into the Advent season?
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