Two weeks ago we looked at Jesus family tree in Matthew’s Gospel and spent a little time looking at the scandals in that family tree.... scandals of incest, prostitution, mixed race, adultery, and murder.
As we continue on to the next section of Matthew’s Gospel which deals with the birth of Jesus, we discover that there is another scandal. Mary conceives a child out of wedlock.
In verse 19 we read the heaviness or the weight of the scandal... Joseph, her fiancée, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
It’s funny that verse. We read that he was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. But in actual fact, doesn't it sound a whole lot more that he didn’t want to disgrace himself publicly, because the truth is, the only way that he could make sure that she wasn't disgraced was by marrying her.
By divorcing her, Joseph would have been sealing her fate. Forever more, she would be regarded as an unwed mother. For the rest of her life she would live under the shadow of scandal.
And indeed, within the early years of the Christian Church, there clearly was scandal around the birth of Jesus.
There was even a story or a rumour that went around that suggested that Mary had become pregnant by being raped by a Roman soldier. Not only that, the Roman soldier even had a name: “Pantera”. It can be found in the writings of Celcus in the 2nd century, as well as earlier in the Jewish Talmud.
The scandal around Jesus birth can even be seen within some of the New Testament Scriptures:
- In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is referred to as the Son of Mary. It was a very strange way of referring to someone in 1st century Jewish culture. No-one in Jewish culture was referred to as the son of their mother, unless there were question marks about the paternity.
- Some suggest that in John 8:41 where the Pharisees protest that they are not illegitimate children born of sexual immorality, they are by implication suggesting that Jesus is.
- Some have even suggested (like Celcus) that claims of a virgin birth were the early churches attempt to downplay or even cover up the scandal.
The logical implication in tour Gospel story today is that Joseph was probably more concerned about saving his own reputation than saving the reputation of Mary.
Isn’t that human nature. Don’t we do that sometimes. We make it look like acting in someone else's best interests, but it is a strategy to cover over the fact that we are acting in our own best interests.
"Joseph, her fiancée, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly."
I would like to pause for a moment and examine the word righteous that is used to describe Joseph, because it is a significant one in Matthew’s Gospel.
It is one of those disputed words in the Gospel. Part of the purpose of Matthew’s Gospel is to explore the true meaning of the word ‘righteous’. It is a word that appears seven times in Matthews Gospel.
As the rest of the Gospel unfolds it is clear that the Pharisees, the main Jewish political and religious party had their own understanding of that word ‘righteous’. It had a lot to do with following minute and detailed rules and laws.
Jesus on the other hand has his own understanding of what that word means and he is very critical of the way in which the Pharisees live out their so-called righteousness. For Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel the word righteous has a lot more to do with the word’s compassion, fairness and most importantly the word love.
As I had shared two weeks ago, in Matthews Gospel, Jesus is critical of the Pharisees righteousness, because it is primarily about outward show. On the outside, they like to give the appearance of being righteous. They say long prayers in public. They wear special religious clothes, wearing long tassels and a little box called a phylactery on their forehead that contained a verse of scripture. They liked to make a public show of how much money they would contribute to the temple treasury. Outwardly they liked to show just how faithful they were to following the religious rules and laws.
But later on in Matthew’s Gospel, as I suggested two weeks ago, Jesus compares the Pharisees to white washed tomb-stones. Nice and neat and clean on the outside, but full of dead bones. The righteousness of the Pharisees was an external righteousness. They fulfilled the letter of the laws, but their hearts remained unchanged.
Early on in Matthew’s Gospel in the sermon on the mount, Jesus tells his first followers, that their righteousness needs to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees if they are to truly live as citizens of the Kingdom of God. In other words their righteousness needs to go deeper than that of the Pharisees. It needs to flow from a heart of love, which Jesus suggests is the heart of the Law... love of God and love of neighbour.
Near the end of Matthew’s Gospel, in the climactic parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus describes the actions of the truly righteous: The truly righteous are those who give water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, those who show acts of love to those in prison, and all the while, they are not even aware that these actions are actually righteous. They do them spontaneously out of love rather than by trying to be religious or trying to earn brownie points in heaven.
And so getting back to the story of Joseph, we read that he is a righteous man. Right at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew introduces us to this word ‘righteous’. But the big question is, what kind of righteousness is it? Will Joseph act according to the Pharisees approach to righteousness where he is more concerned about outward show and public opinion, making sure that he keeps his reputation in tact in the eyes of his neighbours? Or will Joseph act in accordance with Jesus approach to righteousness. Will Joseph act out of faithfulness and love even at the risk of his own reputation?
In the story, Joseph has a dream in which an angel encourages Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife and that the one born of her will be called Immanuel for through his life and presence, people will know that God is with them.
In verse 24 we read: “When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife.”
Joseph listens to the Divine voice within. He follows the voice that speaks within the depths of his heart rather than the voice that speaks from his head that is more concerned about what others will think.
At the end of this little episode, the reader sighs a little sigh of relief. Joseph is indeed a man of integrity and honour. His righteousness is not just outward show but inward authenticity. Early in Matthew's Gospel, in this act of faithfulness and love towards Mary, Joseph is already showing us the way of Jesus.
But ultimately this story is not just about Joseph is it. Ultimately the story is about us. It is about you and it is about me, the readers of Matthew’s Gospel.
And the question remains....
Will we live our lives with our primary concern being outward show and public opinion, or will we live a life of deeper authenticity. Will we live our lives primarily out of the desire to win the approval of those around us? Or will we live our lives from a deeper principle, a deeper integrity, listening to the deeper voice of Divine Love from within?