ADOTS Morning Prayer: Friday 19 March 2021
O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the husband of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the original Star Trek series, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy — Captain Kirk and Spock — were real-life friends, but they were also competitive actors, particularly Shatner. I’ve read that Shatner would scrutinize each new script, comparing the number of lines he had to the number of lines Nimoy had, Kirk’s minutes on screen to Spock’s. If his role were not clearly dominant, Shatner would demand a re-write; in fact, he “stole” some of Spock’s best lines and best scenes for his own.
I guess this sort of thing is important for an actor, a way to judge the value of a role or the actor’s value to Hollywood: number of lines spoken, time on screen. No actor wants a career as a stand-in, a walk-on, as maid number 3 who serves the lord of the manor tea in Act II and is never heard from or seen again.
By this metric of lines and minutes, Joseph, Husband of the Virgin Mary and Guardian of Jesus, is a failed actor in the God’s drama of redemption. He has no lines to say. He is only in three scenes — briefly in each — and in one he is clearly upstaged by his wife, Mary, who has the speaking part. In fact, he is identified primarily — almost solely — by his relationship to others who are seemingly more important than he: Husband of the Virgin Mary, Guardian of Jesus. If this had been a screen production, Willian Shatner would never have considered the part of Joseph: Pilate, maybe, but Joseph certainly not.
So, what is Joseph’s value in the story? What does he contribute, historically and theologically?
Not surprisingly, to answer this question we have to start with Mary. It is in and through Mary that the Logos, the second Person of the Trinity, assumes flesh and blood and human nature. For lack of better words, Mary is the human agent of incarnation. Through her, God becomes man in the person of her son, Jesus of Nazareth; Mary is the source of his flesh and blood, of his humanity. And while it is the humanity common to us all, it is expressed through particularity: Jesus was neither Irish nor Italian, neither black nor white. Jesus was particularly Jewish, and he was so through his mother Mary. He was the son of the covenant that God had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the fulfillment of God’s promise that through Abraham and his seed all the world would be blessed. Jesus was a Jew.
Jewish lineage is matrilineal. One born of a Jewish mother — regardless of the ethnicity of the father — is Jewish. If Jesus were to be a Jew, his mother had to be a Jew. So, Mary contributes flesh and blood, human nature, and Jewishness. And what of Joseph? What does he contribute? Remember the promises and prophesies: not only must the Messiah be Jewish, he must be of a particular tribe, Judah, and a particular house, David. And these — tribe and house — are traced through the father, not the mother. It was through Joseph that Jesus derived the legal lineage necessary to fulfill Jacob’s blessing of Judah and God’s promises to David.
To Judah, Jacob had said:
Genesis 49:10 (ESV): 10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
To David, God had said, through the prophet Nathan:
2 Samuel 7:12–14 (ESV): 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.
When Scripture speaks of Jesus as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, that is attributable to Joseph. When Scripture speaks of an Everlasting King from the house of David, that is attributable to Joseph.
As a father myself, I’ve long pondered the nature of that role. I think I am a different father to my daughter than my father was to me. That is neither good nor bad; as much as anything else it is simply a reflection of the times in which we live. Parental roles are — for better or worse, and it’s unusually some of each — colored by social norms. As with fatherhood today, the father’s role in a first century Jewish family was prescribed by culture: in that time and place, to protect and defend the family as best he could, to provide economically for the family as best he could, and to provide discipline and vocational training — primarily for the sons — as best he could. That Jesus survived the slaughter of the innocents and the wrath of Herod the Great is tribute to Joseph and his faithful response to God. That — even though poor — Jesus had a place to live and food to eat is tribute to Joseph. That Jesus had a trade — handyman carpenter — is tribute to Joseph. These are no small things.
In the drama of salvation, Joseph’s role is not a speaking part — he says nothing to the audience — nor does he have much time on stage. But, what he does in silence and behind the scenes is crucial to the “character development” of the lead actor and to the backstory of the drama. He is no bit player, but a crucial, supporting actor.
What is it about Joseph that made him ideal for that part? Here’s the first we hear about him:
Matthew 1:18–19 (ESV): 18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
Mary and Joseph were betrothed, which means that they were, in effect, married except for cohabitation and sexual relations. A betrothal was ended only by consummation of the marriage or by divorce. Mary’s pregnancy during the betrothal period was either a shameful flaunting of social norms if the baby were Joseph’s, or else adultery if the baby were not Joseph’s. The text notes that Joseph was a just man, a righteous, man: presumably a man who was known as upright, who did the right thing, and who followed the Law and the social norms. He would have been justified in divorcing Mary publicly, on grounds of adultery. Of course, since adultery was a capital offense, that could have meant Mary’s death. But, the text also says that he was unwilling to shame — and likely endanger — Mary in this way. So, Joseph was not just just in terms of conformity to Law and custom; he was also merciful. Divorce, yes; that is the just thing to do as Joseph sees it — but privately, which is the merciful things to do. There is a description of this wonderful duality in Psalm 85:
10 Mercy and truth have met together;*
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
11 Truth shall flourish out of the earth,*
and righteousness shall look down from heaven (BCP 2019, p. 381).
Mercy and truth, righteousness and peace, justice and compassion: the coming together, the embrace, of opposites which, as it turns out, are not opposites at all. I am hesitant to go beyond Scripture and certainly hesitant and unqualified to psychologize Scripture, but I can’t help seeing this same dynamic at work in this story:
John 8:2–11 (ESV): 2 Early in the morning [Jesus] came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
Thirty years earlier, this woman might have been Mary, had Joseph not shown both justice and mercy. I wonder if Mary and Joseph had told Jesus their story — his story?
The text also tells us that Joseph was a thinker and a dreamer, a pattern in Joseph’s life.
Matthew 1:20–21 (ESV): 20 But as [Joseph] considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Joseph considered, and Joseph dreamed. This is a pattern of spiritual discernment that St. Ignatius would have endorsed. In making an important spiritual decision, lay out all the options. Think them through, analyze them in detail, submit them to God, and be attentive to movements of the Spirit, to consolations given by God. Justice, mercy, spiritual discernment, openness to revelation: these were hallmarks of Joseph’s character.
There is one more that the text mentions, again repeated in Joseph’s life:
Matthew 1:24–25 (ESV): 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
Joseph was obedient, faithful to what God had revealed. Was he relieved by the dream? Was he disappointed? Was he apprehensive? We don’t know. Was he obedient and faithful regardless of consequences and personal desires? Yes, that we know. Three times this pattern repeats in Joseph’s life: dilemma, discernment, dream, obedience. The pattern always ended in obedience to the will of God. It is not too great a stretch, I think, to see that same thing in Joseph’s son:
Matthew 26:39 (ESV): 39 And going a little farther [Jesus] fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
Not as I will, but as you will: obedience to God regardless of personal desire or consequences.
We often focus on the role of Mary in the incarnation, and rightly so. She is the model of humility and faithfulness. But, the Church wisely insists that we remember Joseph, as well, who models for us the embrace of justice and mercy; a discerning pattern of reason and revelation; and obedience to the will of God. Surely, these were influences on Jesus as he grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man. Amen.