Since singer/songwriter Mark Lowry wrote the 1984 Christmas hit, “Mary, Did You Know?” pastors, theologians, inquisitive laity and holiday enthusiasts have deconstructed and reconstructed Lowry’s question.
While thousands of well-meaning Christians have dissected Lowry’s song and question, my focus rests on the other parental character in the Christmas story. While the attention needs to focus on the mother of Jesus, I’ve often wondered what was going on in Joseph’s head.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the author offers insight into the stark reality of Mary and Joseph’s situation. The dire circumstances both mother and father faced had to be extremely frightening.
The evidence of Mary’s pregnancy – no matter whether divine conception or not – placed the couple and their baby in social and physical peril.
Residing in an honor-shame culture, premarital pregnancy was serious business. Anything that brought shame to the family could have placed them outside of normal community activities.
According to religion scholar Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus, any baby born outside the normal customs would have been considered a “mamzer” – a child born under the stigma of questionable birth.
Therefore, the child could have brought shame to the family if the matter was not handled appropriately. Unfortunately, most of the time, the responsibility was left to the man. Consequently, Joseph had a decision to make.
Matthew describes Joseph as a “righteous” man. Many might define “righteous” as someone always taking the correct action. However, the Greek word dikaios has a deeper meaning. It means to be just, especially in the eyes of God.
Now, here is where the story becomes extremely problematic. The text clearly states the “righteous” thing that Joseph decided to do was “quietly” divorce Mary so that “public disgrace” would not come down on her. That was the “righteous” thing to do?
Again, remember the definition of righteousness: “justice in the eyes of God.” At this point in the story, all the men thought they knew what God deemed “righteous” and “just.” Therefore, Joseph acted, and Matthew recounted the story, based on their assumptions.
Of course, when we assume anything – especially about God – we make a donkey out of ourselves.
According to the masculine understanding of the divine, quietly divorcing the wayward Mary was the honorable course of action – even blessed by God as far as they were concerned. They actually thought God approved of such “noble” self-preservation.
But, as we quickly discover, God did not see the situation as the men did. God intervened. There may be no better example of God’s femininity than this moment in the Scriptures. God was indeed acting as a mother hen brooding over her chicks.
After Joseph had “resolved” to divorce Mary, God sent a messenger to interrupt Joseph’s slumber. Joseph thought the situation was resolved, but God, it appeared, had other plans.
In his dream, Joseph received what can only be described as a very polite dressing down of his decision. Apparently, God did not think divorcing a young mother in the hour of her greatest need was the “righteous” thing to do.
According to the divine messenger, the righteous action for Joseph was to take Mary as his wife. The messenger revealed that the child Mary carried was from the Holy Spirit, meaning the child was destined with a divine purpose. In other words, the messenger simply showed Joseph what he would be missing by turning his back on Mary and her son.
There is a lot of other spiritualized language following this pronouncement, most likely offered by later redactors to elevate Jesus’ divinity. For example, the entire “virgin” subtext is a stretch from the original Hebrew found in Isaiah 7:14, which literally reads a “young woman.”
Nevertheless, the significance of this story does not rest in its historical accuracy or metaphysical possibilities. The focus of this story should be on the difference between human and divine perceptions of righteousness.
How often do we go about thinking we are committing righteous acts? How many times throughout history have governments and communities acted as though their policies were righteous, only to be negated and overturned by future generations?
Invasion of Indigenous lands based upon the false notion of manifest destiny?
Colonial conformity disguised as Christian conversion?
Enslavement of Africans because of the grievous and evil assumption of racial inferiority?
The subjugation of women as the “lesser” sex?
Destructive behaviors towards creation because the planet is seen as a commodity for human consumption?
Bigoted policies towards LGBTQ+ individuals in reaction to misguided interpretations of Scripture and toxic masculinity?
There are many more.
Within each of these issues, God sent divine messengers to the earth, calling people of faith to rethink their understanding and practices of righteousness. Righteousness must always be rooted in the love and justice of God.
As people of good faith, we must always measure our perceptions of the world against the ways of the divine. And for Christians, anything less than living the example of Jesus is null and void.
Therefore, I return to my original question. What did Joseph think when Mary told him about her unexpected and inconvenient pregnancy?
His initial reaction was based upon a flawed understanding of God’s love and justice. Only after divine intervention does he change his mind. And while I have been somewhat critical of Jesus’ adoptive father, I want to express appreciation and admiration for his open-mindedness.
What are God’s messengers trying to tell us this holiday season?
What areas of our theology and politics do we need to assess?
What social issues do we need to examine from God’s perspective?
What do we need to change in our minds and hearts about this Christmas season?
After Joseph changed his mind, he went on to take Mary as his wife and care for their family. He realized that God is with us when both love and justice are present.
May God’s presence be with you this holiday season as we listen for the voices of God’s messengers, challenging us with truth and hope for a better tomorrow.
CEO of Good Faith Media.