We’ve all probably seen a children’s nativity play. But even if you haven’t, you can perhaps imagine the gist. They’re usually a creative conflation of the two different stories we have about Jesus’s birth from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew.
There’s the setting in a manger at night, of course, with shepherds and angelic choirs, from Luke’s version. There are the Magi — the three wise men from the East — from Matthew’s version, though Matthew reports that the wise men showed up sometime after Jesus was born, not the night of his birth. And there is, of course, Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, the central characters of this drama.
It’s a wonderful, heartwarming story. And even if some of the details in such nativity plays aren’t precisely historically accurate, they still tell us the central truth that something extraordinary happened, and that because of the birth of this child, everything would be different.
God became a man. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness, despite its best efforts, cannot overcome it. Praise God!
What’s missing from these wonderful nativity plays is the absolute scandal of it all. We catch a glimpse of the scandal in this past week’s Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent from Matthew 1:18-25.
This is a story about a young woman (likely a teenager) that turns up pregnant, but not by her betrothed. It’s a story about her fiance’s initial decision to not go through with the marriage, likely because of the shame and scandal of it all, but then his change of mind and heart. And it’s a story about the incredible claim that the teenage girl got pregnant from God.
This is the stuff of Netflix and Amazon Prime dramas. Pregnancy out of wedlock, scandal, shame, and intrigue, with a dose of the divine tossed into the mix for good measure.
But before we get there, let’s remind ourselves of how Luke tells the story.
One Birth, Two Perspectives
Luke tells the story of Jesus’s birth from Mary’s perspective. The peculiar details of her pregnancy are noted with the emphasis in Luke’s version that Mary is a virgin, pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. Mary’s virginity is apparently a very important detail because it’s stated three different times! (see Luke 1:26-27 and Luke 1:34)
So how does she get pregnant? Well, this is all a mysterious miracle from God. Mary isn’t to fear or worry. It will all happen just as the angel Gabriel has promised (see Luke 1:34-38).
The response about the announcement of Jesus’s birth in Luke’s version is an overwhelming joy. John the Baptist, incubating in his mother Elizabeth’s womb, leaps for joy when Mary arrives at her relative’s house. Elizabeth proclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” (see Luke 1:41-45). Mary also bursts into song (Luke 1:46-55).
Later, on the night Jesus is born, there are angelic choirs and shepherds glorifying and praising God, telling everyone the wonderful thing that has happened (Luke 2:13-20).
In sharp contrast, Matthew’s version is told from Joseph’s perspective and is much soberer. There are no angelic choirs and bursts of song or praise or poetry. There are no shepherds telling everyone about the wonderful thing that has just happened.
Instead, there’s Joseph’s quiet, contemplative, and deliberative determination to call off his marriage to Mary.
Put yourself in Joseph’s position. He’s just learned that his fiance is pregnant. And not by him! How would you respond?
Even today, in our hyper-sexualized modern culture, there are religious, social, and cultural norms that tend to frown upon young women — especially teenagers — getting pregnant out of wedlock. How much more so in this ancient, deeply religious, honor and shame culture? This is scandalous stuff.
What would you do if you were Joseph? How would you feel about the situation? And, if you were Joseph, would the explanation, “Oh, don’t worry about it because this is all from God” be very satisfactory to you?
I don’t think it would be for me.
A Devout Jew
We know very little about Joseph. Aside from his presence in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke and a few other minor mentions of him, he’s simply not a major character in the Gospels.
We know he was a skilled craftsman, a carpenter, and that Jesus learned this family trade as well.
But the looming absence of Joseph in the Gospels, in contrast to Mary, has led most scholars to assume that Joseph died at some point when Jesus was growing up.
Nevertheless, despite the scant details about Joseph in the story of Jesus, we learn several important things about him in this short passage of Scripture that tells about Jesus’s birth.
First, it appears that Joseph was devout in his Jewish faith. Matthew 1:19 notes that he was “a righteous man.” The New International Version says he was “faithful to the law.”
This is also confirmed in Luke’s telling of things. For example, Luke notes that, in accordance with Jewish law, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth (Luke 2:21) and that when the time came for “purification rights required by the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took [Jesus] to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord” (Luke 2:22-24). Luke reports that they only returned home to Nazareth after they “had done everything required by the Law of the Lord” (Luke 2:39).
Finally, the one story about Jesus’s childhood we have comes from Luke. It’s the story about 12-year-old Jesus debating with the religious scholars at the temple in Jerusalem. We learn at the beginning of that story that “Every year Jesus’s parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover” (Luke 2:41).
We have in these brief snapshots pictures of a family deeply devoted to their Jewish faith. And this is no doubt because Joseph himself was a deeply devout man of faith.
A Kind and Compassionate Man
Second, we learn from Matthew’s telling of Jesus’s birth that Joseph was outrageously kind and compassionate.
When he learns that his fiance Mary is pregnant and not by him, Joseph doesn’t fly into a rage. He doesn’t make a public spectacle of her or throw her to the mercy of the Jewish law courts. All of which he could have done and would have been justified in doing given the social, cultural, and religious norms and customs of the time.
Instead, the Bible tells us that because he “did not want to expose [Mary—and by extension, her entire family] to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19).
The CEB version says it this way: “Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly” (Matthew 1:19, CEB) The Message version says, “Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced” (Matthew 1:19, MSG).
This is a wonderfully kind, gracious, and compassionate gesture by Joseph. Talk about swallowing your pride! Although he was “a righteous man”, Joseph wasn’t a self-righteous man.
Having his betrothed wife turn up pregnant by someone other than him was not only scandalous and embarrassing for her, but for him as well. Yet there are no outbursts of condemnation or righteous indignation. There are no self-righteous speeches about morality.
Instead, Joseph chooses the difficult way of compassion, mercy, and kindness in the face of a humiliating scandal rather than seeking to publically disgrace Mary who, by all appearances anyway, had gravely wronged and shamed him, as well as herself and her family.
This tells us something remarkable about his character and the kind of man that Joseph was.
Finally, we learn in Matthew’s version of Jesus’s birth that Joseph chose to trust and obey God, despite the inevitable misunderstandings, mischaracterizations, scandal, and stigma that would follow the family all their lives because of the peculiar circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy.
After he had decided to call things off with Mary, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and assures him that all this is from God and that God has a very special plan in store for this child.
“Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife,” the angel tells him, “because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). Verses 24-25 conclude the passage:
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.Matthew 1:24-25
We know, of course, that the story doesn’t end as neatly and tidily as that. We know this because we know that, just as people talk and whisper and gossip today, people back then did too.
The Bible even hints at some of the whispers and rumors spread about Jesus and the peculiar circumstances of his birth.
The very fact that we have two different stories about Jesus’s birth — one told from Mary’s perspective (Luke’s version) and the other from Joseph’s (Matthew’s version) — with both emphasizing that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father, suggests that there were questions and rumors circulating that needed to be answered.
There are also other clues. For example, Luke provides us with the anecdotal comment at the beginning of his genealogy of Jesus that Jesus “was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph” (Luke 3:23).
In John 8 Jesus is debating with some fellow Jews and after several back-and-forths they exclaim, “WE are not illegitimate children” (John 8:41, emphasis added). A charge that at least some scholars suspect was a subversive jab at Jesus that points to whispers in the community about his family.
Despite all the challenges — the embarrassment, the whispers and rumors, the speculations and stigma — that were bound to follow, Joseph trusts and obeys God.
He takes Mary as his wife and raises Jesus as his own son. Thus, the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that “as to his earthly life” Jesus “was a descendant of David” because Joseph was a descendant of David (Romans 1:3).
Counting the Cost
What would it be like raising the Son of God? And what does it tell us that God chose to enter into the mess of our broken world through the scandalous means of a young girl becoming pregnant before she was married or ever had sex with a man?
And, back to our original question, how would you have responded if you had been in Joseph’s position?
Heartwarming nativity plays tell us the wonderful and glorious truth that God became a man in the person of Jesus. But they have a tendency to obscure the utter scandal of it all.
What was thrust upon Joseph and Mary was difficult. We rightly emphasize their trust in God, their faithfulness, and obedience, and hold them up as models to emulate.
But let’s not minimize what it cost them in terms of reputation and relationships in their community. The whispers and rumors. The social stigma. The questions and the misunderstandings. The scandal.
Joseph counted the cost. So did Mary. And they went all in. Have we?
Almighty God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you.
Use us as you will, just as you used Joseph and Mary, always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. (Adapted from the Book of Common Worship)