"And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily". Matthew 1:19 ASV
At Christmas I never cease to be amazed at the incredible, reckless, unfathomable risk God took in his plan of salvation for the human race. He deliberately chose to be a literally helpless baby, totally and utterly dependent on the obedience of the humans chosen to care for him. Wow! Just wow!
Much will be said, and rightly so, about the obedience of Mary and her willingness to be used by God in delivering the gift package to humanity, but I’d like to point out the essential role played by her husband-to-be in this plan.
First, let’s clear up some confusion about the legal standing of Joseph and Mary.
In first century Judea marriages were arranged between families - the couple had little to do with the choice - often while the future partners were just children. When an agreement was reached this was called an “engagement”, even though the couple may not have even met each other! But it was settled for all intents and purposes until a ceremony known as “betrothal” which happened about a year before the “marriage”.
At the betrothal, the girl had the option of "checking out" the groom and deciding whether or not she wanted to proceed to marriage. Think of this in today’s terms as the groom on one knee with a diamond ring in a box “popping the question”. If she said “yes” then they became “betrothed” and the families would start planning the wedding for about a year out.
When a couple was betrothed this was a legal contract to be married, and there was only one way to back out - the groom had to seek a divorce. The bride had no way to change her mind. If her future husband died before the wedding there was even a provision in the law for “a virgin who is a widow”.
The betrothal meeting had taken place. Mary had said “yes”. It was all legally binding. There was no going back now!
So to say that Mary and Joseph’s conversation around her pregnancy was “awkward” must be the understatement of all time!
Joseph was in a bind. The scripture calls him a “righteous” man, which would mean that he was highly respected as an upstanding member of his community. He probably held a position of responsibility in the synagogue. His reputation and even his business were threatened by this turn of events. He mulled over the possibilities. He could denounce Mary and call for divorce - a perfectly legitimate thing to do under the law - but that would expose Mary and her child to ridicule and very probably the penalty of stoning. Plan “B” - send her away to some anonymous distant relative, “put her away privily”, and then seek a divorce. But in a small town like Nazareth tongues would wag and his reputation and business would be in tatters.
Or, he could seek guidance from God. He did. Good choice, Joe!
Unlike so many of us who seek God’s guidance, get it, and then pray “Thy will be changed”, Joseph was willing to accept God’s will unconditionally “Thy will be done”. Joseph was willing to take on the legal, moral, emotional and spiritual responsibility of being “father” to Jesus. Tough call - which would only get tougher!
It must have been a big surprise when the time came for Joseph, the legal head of the family, to give the baby his name. Everyone would be expecting the name to be “Joseph Jr.” according to the tradition of the time. But instead, at divine direction, Joseph obediently gives him the name “Yeshua” (“Joshua" or “Jesus" in English), “because he will save his people from their sins”. Tongues must have been wagging faster than a litter of puppy tails at the kibble bowl!
Life would go on to become even more adventurous from there. Assassination attempts, visits from Persian astronomers, exile in Egypt, and hazardous journeys on foot and far from home all lay in his immediate future because of his obedience. He must have wondered every night, “what new adventure does God want to tell me about in my dreams?”
Joseph was willing to be a forgotten father for the sake of God’s will. We never hear directly from Joseph again, and then only indirectly twelve years later when Mary tells Jesus “…your father and I have been searching for you…”. Joseph's "continued obedience in a long direction" made it possible for us to be celebrating this season of Advent. Jesus’ ironic response, “…I must be about my Father’s business…” tells us Joseph did a good job as a father by guiding Jesus toward his true father.
Be like Joseph, seek guidance from God, trust His will - and just do it!