The Value(s) of Joseph

December 18, 2016

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
4th Sunday of Advent – Year A
Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

(Gospel Text provided below)

When I was 24 years old, after a couple of years at one of the Big-8 Accounting firms (now it’s the Big 4), I was hired to be the supervisor of a Commercial Loan Accounting department at First City Bank in Houston. In this role, I’d manage a staff of eight people, all of whom were older than me.

My experience as an auditor was with Oil & Gas clients and a few hospitals. I knew nothing about banking, aside from having a checking account, and even that was fairly new to me. I’d never been a supervisor in a work-setting – so needless to say, being hired into this role was a bit daunting. I joked that the real reason I was hired was because Mary, the department manager, wanted me to play on her inter-bank softball team! But, it’s more likely that Mary hired me, at some level, because of my father.

Now, a few years earlier this would have been a problem. When I trying to get my first job after college, I wanted desperately to be hired independent of my family. My dad was a prominent Houston City Councilman, even a potential contender for Mayor. dad-collage-2 I love my dad, and he’s a huge part of my life, but I really wanted to “make it on my own” like the Mary Tyler Moore theme song!

Yet here I was, just a couple of years later, being hired into a job with no proven experience, and if I’m honest, softball team notwithstanding, it was probably based on my boss’s knowledge of my father. Now, she didn’t know him personally, but what she did know about him, she liked and respected. So, despite all I didn’t bring to the table, Mary took a chance on me – which began my twenty-year career in bank operations.

I share that story because in similar ways, just as my boss got a sense of me through her perception of my father, perhaps we can get a sense of Jesus based on what we see in Joseph, the man who raised him. Scripture doesn’t give us much to work with, but what we get in Matthew’s gospel speaks volumes.

Remember, this gospel was written for a Hebrew audience, so the patriarch is highlighted much more than Mary. We get Mary’s story from Luke’s gospel, written to show Jesus as one that opens-up boundaries. By contrast, the purpose of Matthew’s gospel is to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of Torah, and how each step of Jesus’ life is the fulfillment of ancient prophecies about the Messiah.

Zefad - 2006-06-26 - 2006-06-28_311-3Matthew’s gospel continually makes connections between the Hebrew tradition and Jesus’ life. The genealogy just before today’s reading begins with Abraham, the father of the Hebrew tradition. It mentions Jesse, the father of King David, and then tracks all the way forward to Joseph, designated as “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” (Mt. 1:16b)

According to the genealogy, this New Testament Joseph had a father named Jacob, just as the ancient Joseph – the coat-of-many-colors Joseph – had a father named Jacob. And, that earlier Joseph, was known for his ability to interpret dreams. So too, the Joseph in Matthew’s gospel hears God’s message through his dreams.

When Joseph is first introduced, it says:

Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

This “righteous man” language is the same introduction used for Noah in Genesis. It went on to say that Noah walked with God. So now, our Joseph is also a righteous man, and he, too, walks with God.

And that last part, that Joseph, “unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” reveals Joseph as a compassionate person. It shows that compassion is more important than following the letter of the Hebrew law. You see, in Leviticus, where the laws are spelled out, it says that Mary, having become pregnant before marriage, by someone other than Joseph to whom she was legally promised, is an abomination. The punishment dictated is that she be publicly disgraced and then cast out of the community.

dalailama1

But instead, Joseph, a righteous man, has compassion for Mary that outweighs the literal interpretation of the Hebrew law. He decides to simply dismiss Mary quietly, allowing her to go to another town and start a new life, and not be excommunicated from her Hebrew roots.

And although Joseph has made this unexpected decision, we learn even more about him in what comes next. It says:

But just when [Joseph] had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph… do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus…” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.

In this, we see another example of being righteous. Even though Joseph had made up his mind, he stayed open to what God may be calling him to do, even when that something would be uncomfortable and make his life difficult. You see, by staying with Mary, Joseph implicates himself as having been part of this forbidden act.

Their gonna figure it out. People in Joseph’s time did math around pregnancies the same as we do today. In a few months after the hasty marriage, when Mary’s pregnancy starts to show, everyone starts counting backwards. They’d be sayin’ “Now, when was it again that Mary and Joseph got married? Hmmm, somethin’s not adding up.” And while Joseph can try the “It wasn’t me, it was the Holy Spirit” defense… yeah, probably not the best move.

I’m just sayin’ Joseph’s righteousness has moved to a whole other level when he makes this kind of God-directed, life-changing decision. And this wasn’t a one-time thing. We see a pattern of this God-directed life for Joseph.

angel_appears_to_josephAfter Jesus is born, King Herod tries to find him so he can kill this Messiah-child. Joseph has a God-dream telling him to flee to Egypt – a far-away place where he has no family, and Joseph does it. A couple of years later, after Herod’s death, Joseph has another God-dream saying it’s safe to return to the land of Israel. Yet he’s not sure Judea was safe, so to protect his family, they went to Galilee and settled in a town called Nazareth. And, according to Matthew’s gospel, each of these things was necessary in order to fulfill words of ancient prophets about the Messiah.

And while it’s interesting to get insight into Joseph for his own sake, it’s also a foundation for learning more about Jesus, considering he was raised by Joseph.

When I thought about this, I remembered something I learned in those early days at the bank. In my supervisor training class, we were told that a person’s values are set by the time they are 10 years old. We were asked to reflect on what circumstances were happening in our family, our community, our country, the economy, all of that, during those first years of our lives. These factors influenced our core values. dad-3We were then invited to consider what was happening during the first 10 years of our parents’ lives, because their values will impact our own value-formation. And finally, we were asked to realize that each of our employees has their own “10-year” pattern which has shaped their values, which are likely to be very different than our own. Taking this into account made me better able to meet them where they were, instead of insisting they be how I am. It’s been a vital influence for me in forming relationships with people from diverse backgrounds and ages.

As we think about Jesus during his first 10 years of life, Joseph would be a major influence as Jesus developed his own core values. While the gospel only gives us a handful of verses to paint that picture, it is no less compelling.

  • A righteous person who walks with God.
  • Someone who seeks God for guidance, even when they thought they had it figured out.
  • A person that leads and lives with compassion, even if it’s contrary to following the letter of the law outlined in their religious tradition.
  • Someone who follows where God leads, even if it isn’t easy, comfortable, or safe.

We see in Jesus’ life and in his sacrificial death all of these things.

cc_righteousman

So, while Joseph doesn’t get as much attention in our Christian tradition as Mary does, there’s much we can learn from him. Just as the influence of my own father has been huge in my life, laying a foundation for who I have become, one could argue that the humanity and righteousness of Jesus was first framed by his father, Joseph.

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we give thanks for the example of Joseph, and for the gift of his righteousness and faithfulness, given first to God, then to Mary, and ultimately to Jesus, our Messiah.

dad-4

Gospel Text:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” 

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Mt 1:18-25)

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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