Joseph is perhaps the most neglected person in the Christmas story. Many songs have been written about Mary through the centuries, but Joseph is hardly the subject of musical pieces. I can only think of one contemporary song written about Joseph. If there are other songs out there, my United Methodist Church seldom employs them. We know very little about Joseph. Outside of the birth narratives we only encounter him in Luke 2:41-52, the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple. When Jesus begins his ministry at age thirty, Joseph is not around though Mary is mentioned. It is generally assumed that by the time Jesus sets out on his mission, Joseph is dead.
In Matthew's Gospel we get a hint of Joseph's character.
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 (Matthew 1:18-25).At first, Joseph does not believe the miraculous story about Mary's pregnancy. What man would? So, Joseph decides to divorce Mary quietly. In first-century Judaism, engagement was legally binding and could only be broken through legal proceedings. Matthew tells us that Joseph was "unwilling to expose her to public disgrace." Just what kind of public disgrace was Joseph protecting Mary from? Scot McKnight goes into detail.
Because life is frequently complex, there were issues and evidence to consider for those whose task it was to administer such laws: How do you know if the woman really is guilty of adultery? What if she claimed she had been raped? What if her husband had brought false charges against her? What if the young woman denied any wrongdoing? In the midst of all the village gossip, there was a practical, legal question: How to determine if a woman was guilty of adultery in disputable cases?
The law of "bitter waters" was designed for disputable cases. According to the fifth chap chapter of Numbers, a suspected adulteress (sotah) was brought before the priest, required to let her hair hang down and under oath asked to drink the bitter waters: a mixture of dust, holy water, and the ink of the priest’s written curse. The oath involved these words: "may the LORD cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb to miscarry and your abdomen swell." If the woman was guilty, she would become sick. If she didn't become sick, she was acquitted.
Whatever we might think today, this law was implemented in the ancient world. And by the first century this legal procedure of drinking bitter waters sometimes became a public display of justice and other times outright family revenge. In the first century, so far as we can tell from later rabbinic sources, the sotah, or suspected adulteress, was brought into the court in Jerusalem to see if a confession could be extracted. If the sotah-- suspected adulteress-- maintained her innocence, which Mary would have maintained, she would have been taken to a conspicuous location (such as Nicanor's Gate) for public humiliation. She would have been required to drink the bitter waters, her clothes would have been torn enough to expose a breast, her hair would have been let down, and all her jewelry would have been removed. And passersby, especially women, would have been encouraged to stare at the publicly shamed woman in order to make an object lesson of her. That is the real world of a suspected adulteress. That is also the real world of Mary.Such disgrace was much more than women quietly gossiping about Mary at the town well, or quick glances at her by people passing by as she walked down the street. This public humiliation is very public and extremely humiliating.
Matthew states that Joseph's motivation for sparing Mary was not compassion (though he was no doubt compassionate), nor love (though Joseph probably loved Mary). He did what he did because he was righteous. Though it was Joseph's right legally, he decided to exercise mercy. He embodied the words of the Prophet Micah,
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8).
Luke tells us that Jesus grew in wisdom and years (Luke 2:52). Part of Jesus' training in wisdom would have come from his parents. Even though there is no way to know, I wonder where the influence of Joseph figures into Jesus' teaching? Joseph was a son of the Torah and would have passed on the lessons of the law to his son. Joseph was also a son of Israel and knew that the law pointed to something greater than could be codified in ink and on parchment. Joseph knew that while the law was necessary for morality, morality could not be reduced to law. In Matthew 23, when Jesus is excoriating the religious leaders for their treatment of the law as an end in and of itself, Jesus goes after their "it's all perfectly legal approach:
'Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!' (Matthew 23:23-24).Did Jesus learn about the significance of law's weightier matters from his earthly father? Was Jesus echoing his father in these words? Did Jesus learn to embody justice sought, the love of mercy, and humble obedience to his Heavenly Father from his earthly one? We cannot know for certain, but considering what we know of Joseph would it be a surprise?
In God's economy, even the Son of God needed a human father to guide the way.