Das Tollste ist immer war - Goethe
Yes, there were rituals in the Old Testament world that sound like odd forerunners of the witch hunts of the middle ages, Number 5:11-31 - how to divine whether your wife is cheating - is one of those texts. Deuteronomy 22:13-21 - how to prove that your wife was a virgin - is another text that reminds us that the times and places we consider in the bible are often ever so different from our own. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 - about the treatment of rape victims - well - it just sounds downright bizarre like tales from the conservative middle eastern world that offend us even today. Everyone gets stoned to death because the woman does not scream though she was in the city and could have been heard. And if she is found with child, and survives all the questions and tests and so on, then the child is actually someone else’s child and Joseph cannot just take someone else’s as his own without the father giving specific, ritual permission to do so. The biological father has the right to child and woman somehow if the family agrees. It makes modern love, as weird as it has become, seem downright - normal . . . ?
All these bizarre texts are swirling through the mind of Joseph. He lives in a world where marriage was political, tribal, truly an all family affair. Consenting adults are not who make marriages in biblical times and tribal cultures. Families make arrangements, the marriage partners follow along, new children will be born into the family, hopefully sons who will help the family “contend at the gate.” (Ps 127:5) As Goethe says: The most incredible tales always turn out to be true somehow.
But Joseph is not the first modern either. He is certainly just as much part of his culture as the next guy. Yet, unlike the man in Numbers 5, he is not burning with anger or jealousy. He is calm and he wants to do the gracious and right thing. That, he has determined, is to let the family of Mary take charge of the matter. A new arrangement with the true father of the child can be made and Mary can become that man’s wife. Joseph will not step on the other man’s rights and he will be a gentleman about the whole thing and go away honorably. Little does he know in the evening that the “other” is non other than God.
In the scheme of the story, what happens in his dream is that God, the true father of Jesus, gives consent needed for Joseph to “take possession" of Mary and therefore of Jesus. The righteous man, Joseph, is not presuming to take what is not his but receives it. In a bit of subtlety, he “receives” Mary but the right to name the child is not his. He is given instruction on what the name shall be. For him, who had this dream, his parentage, his ownership, for children were property, will always be one of guardian, but he accepts it.
As we look about in the chapter we notice that this text is introduced by the genealogies of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham. These are the “begats” that include Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. In a subtle way Joseph’s parentage is left ambiguous in this list. He is listed not as the “father of” as all the others but instead is listed as: “the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born who is called Christ.” The list is also historical. It starts with Abraham and traces the history of Israel down to Joseph. Luke goes the other way and works his way backward to Adam and ultimately God, the way most of us might tell our heritage. It is as if Matthew is reporting something different from the mundane bookkeeping of parentage. That parentage would not really matter since Jesus’ pedigree is really the Holy Ghost, but then that is complicated. No, for Matthew, somehow, it is the people and their story that matter, hence the asides of Ruth, Rahab and Tamar. They share with Joseph the byname: Guardian of Jesus, the byname bestowed on St. Joseph in the hagiography of the church.
These, as a people, stand as the guardians. It should not surprise us then that a prophecy of that people is recalled immediately: Therefore the LORD himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Is 7:14) It is a piece of the puzzle, this verse that Matthew quotes. The subtle changes from the Hebrew text to the Gospel according to Matthew ought not concern us. As guardians of the word, not curators who jealously try to maintain antiseptic exactness and singularity of purpose, no, as guardians of the words of Isaiah, the words have been re-received as cherished prophecy rediscovered by permission of the Holy Ghost. Jesus fits into these people and into this prophecy seamlessly.
Joseph is the embodiment of this cloud of guardians and their entire history. There is many things he can think. We only know what he does. He takes the matter into his hands as the dream suggested to him. But, he could think Numbers 5 but does not. He could think of Hezekiah and reject the applicability of Isaiah’s prophecy but he instead he receives it as fresh and new. He could think the whole thing crazy and shake the dream off at dawn and agonize that day over his decision yet to be made alone, buried deeply in his own thoughts and demons.
This is good time to ask ourselves: What would I do? To make it closer to home, maybe the question should be extended: How am I disposed toward God: am I demanding my rights in anger, do I keep prophecy safely in the past lest it interfere with my life, and preclude that the Holy Ghost might actually make himself known? This Jesus and his story: how do I fit into the cloud of guardians? Christ is not mine to claim: how do I receive him?
In Advent, the coming of the Kingdom is the heart of the liturgical season’s message. This kingdom, will I meet it in anger over the wrongs that the world has done me? This kingdom prophesied by the Holy Ghost through the prophets, will I meet it at all or have I already dismissed prophecy concerning it outright? This kingdom: do I yet look for signs of it or am I sure that such things do not happen? This kingdom, what quality guardian am I to the story of it? This kingdom, how will I receive it?
Das Tollste ist immer war — the most incredible tales always turn out to be true somehow. This tale of Joseph is one of those incredible tales and the outcome of Jesus’ life gives proof to it. Our Faith gives proof that Joseph got it right. Will we have faith in the incredible tale of the advent of the kingdom?