Revised Common Lectionary, Advent Year 4A
In this passage, Joseph is portrayed as one who exemplifies the kind of justice that Jesus will reveal about his Father’s.
I see a chiastic (ring-composition) structure in Matthew’s rhetoric. The outer envelope (1,9) mention “Jesus,” the center section (4-6) is concerned about names, and the very center (5) is the directive to Joseph to name the child “Jesus” and gives the meaning for this name.
This passage is not Matthew trying to “prove” the Virgin Birth. For Matthew he simply accepts it as true. Given the lack of scientific knowledge about childbirth and the numerous mythologies available about miraculous births and deities conceiving with humans, it probably wouldn’t have been too far-fetched for ancients to tacitly accept this as true, even if much suspicion remained about the “real” facts about how Mary conceived.
The real concern of Matthew in this passage is to show how Jesus could be a Son of David when he is clearly not biologically [1:1-17] a son of Joseph. (Traditionally Luke’s genealogy [3:23-38] has been said to be Mary’s through David’s son Nathan, but this view should not be accepted as hard fact.) Thus Matthew gives an expanded account of the genesis (translated as genealogy [v1]and birth [v18]) of Jesus. By the act of naming, Joseph makes Jesus a son according to the Law [Galatians 4:4].
This takes care of the genealogy and Matthew’s main concern, but we notice that in comparing envelope 3-7, the former is greatly expanded. We are invited to ask, “Why did Matthew feel compelled to expound upon Joseph’s thoughts and feelings?”
The word rendered as “considered” has a much more emotional connotation. We should read it as Joseph fuming and angry with the predicament he is facing. Part of it certainly has to do with what he perceives as Mary’s violation, whether of her volition or raped. His property has been violated; the betrothal contract (law) broken. But we also see his heart where he considers Mary as a person. Even though love was not a requirement for ancient Jewish marriages, I think it is right to read love in Joseph’s heart. Joseph wants to treat Mary compassionately and with mercy. But he is in a dilemma: the law says one thing and his heart says another. I read this as the main reason he is fuming. He cannot find an adequate way to resolve this dissonance.
For both Joseph and us, contracts and laws too often mediate relationships. Laws can certainly simplify relationships. Everything is spelled out in black and white.
I believe Jesus came to remove Law as
a mediator of relationships
Instead Jesus came to be “God with us.” No more mediator. We can speak with and fellowship with God directly. Paul, in Galatians 3:15-4:7, seems to be saying the same thing. Those who belong to Christ are no longer bound by law but are adopted into God’s family through grace.
What then of the angel’s explanation of the name “Jesus” as “he will save his people from their sins?”
Joseph had a distorted picture of God. He saw God pictured one way through the Torah, but his heart gave him a different picture. He couldn’t find a way to reconcile the two images. It is the same with people today. We get distorted pictures of God and our actions are influenced by the distortions. If we think God is controlling and abusive, we tend to become that way. If we think God is hateful, we think it is okay to hate. If we think God is vengeful and violent, well, we think that’s okay for us. If we think the Law defines God’s character, we become legalistic. And so on.
Wrong thinking about God is sin. Jesus came to deliver and save his people – us – from all the terrible portraits humans have painted of God. He came to show us that Law does not define him. In fact God is transcendent over the Law. The Law describes aspects of Him, but He is not a slave to it. Righteousness and justice (they’re essentially the same words) transcend the law (read Galatians again).
The angel told Joseph to break the law. Joseph was told that justice trumps law; that mercy and compassion always take priority over legal correctness. If love could be constrained by law, Jesus had no reason to become incarnate, “God with us.” But he came to show that relationships based on love are messy and unpredictable, that it cannot be codified by law.
Jesus came to save us from the
Sin of Law