Advent 4a 2016, Trying to Figure It All Out (Matthew 1:18-25)

Kind of an odd way to begin a Gospel, if you ask me. Not really very catchy. A list of names—many of them unpronounceable. Then, if that weren’t weird enough, Matthew starts the story of Jesus’ birth with Joseph—arguably the one person who had the least to do with the whole thing. I mean, he’s just the unsuspecting groom.

Everything’s going along fine to this point—got the caterer all lined up. The photographer’s going to be at the church early to take pictures of the wedding party, so that 250 fidgety people don’t have sit at the reception hall eating Spanish peanuts and checking their watches.

They’ve recruited a two person patrol to look out for aunt Gladys—just to make sure she doesn’t mess with the flower arrangements, and to stick close to her when she heads for the open bar. The family’s had an emergency meeting and secretly placed her on a two Manhattan limit. They have an arrangement with bartender from the catering service. Everybody’s tense but confident that the whole thing will come off just fine.

Joseph’s standing around, trying to recall how the lady at the formal wear store said to tie the bow tie, attempting not to look too conspicuous as he does an imaginary practice run, when out of the blue reality taps him on the shoulder and lights the fuse that will cause his whole world to explode in front of his eyes. “Hey, Joseph, your future wife’s pregnant.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but that’s an important little piece of information to possess if you’re about to enter the state of wedded bliss.

“Pregnant?” Then he starts doing the math, and all of a sudden the light bulb goes off over his head—“Hey, wait a minute!” He realizes that his fiancée’s pregnant, and in the immortal words of that 20th Century sage, Michael Jackson, “the kid is not my son.” Consequently, and very quietly, Joseph decides to divorce the woman to whom he’s betrothed.

Don’t you think that’s a strange way to begin a Gospel? But what happens next is even stranger. In first century Judaism, Joseph rightly had two choices: 1) He could have Mary stoned for adultery; or 2) he could present her with a public writ of divorce.

Now, when I say Joseph had two choices under Jewish law, I don’t mean that there were two options—either of which he had the right to choose. No. When I say Joseph had two choices, I mean exactly that—he had two choices. A righteous Jew, when faced with a pregnant fiancée, with the baby belonging to someone other than the betrothed man, had to do one of two things to uphold the law.

As it said in the Tosefta: “A man should not marry a woman made pregnant by his colleague [chaber] or one who nurse’s his colleague’s child.”

In other words, if indeed Joseph were “a righteous man” as Matthew tells us, he had choices—none of which included marrying Mary. But Joseph does continue with the marriage, so he isn’t righteous by definition—at least by the standards of the Judaism of his day.

It would appear, then, that Matthew has a different understanding of righteousness. Maybe Matthew’s agenda involves a different understanding of what it means to be righteous. According to the way Matthew begins his Gospel, righteousness as redefined by this new Messiah, will necessarily appear counter-intuitive to all prevailing understandings of righteousness.

Joseph, according to Matthew, is “a righteous man.” But righteous how? In Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, a description of one type of righteousness emerges in a discussion of the Reverend Stanhope:

As Dr. Stanhope was a clergyman, it may be supposed that his religious convictions made up a considerable part of his character; but this was not so. That he had religious convictions must be believed; but he rarely obtruded them, even on his children. This abstinence on his part was not systematic, but very characteristic of the man. It was not that he had predetermined never to influence their thoughts; but he was so habitually idle that his time for doing so had never come till the opportunity was gone forever. Whatever conviction he may have had, the children were at any rate but indifferent members of the church from which he drew his income (p.71).

Now, I say a description of righteousness emerges in the discussion of the Reverend Stanhope, by which I mean that the sort of righteousness described by Trollope is the kind of righteousness with which we moderns are familiar, if not altogether comfortable.

The Reverend Stanhope might stand as the symbol of modernity’s understanding of righteousness—that is, a righteousness that seems privately pious enough, but never imposes itself on anyone else. Trollope describes a righteousness that never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It has the modern religious virtue of being almost entirely negligible, never getting the bearer in trouble because nothing could be less threatening to the world than someone who is inveterately agreeable. Or, in the words of that other 20th Century sage, Frank Burns: “It’s nice to be nice to the nice.”

The Reverend Stanhope’s faith is everywhere among us in a culture whose social contract includes never believing anything strongly enough to raise the eyebrows of our next-door neighbors, let alone our children. It usually never occurs to modern people that faith in God might at some point put you at odds with the folks you rub elbows with down at the country club. Being righteous, according to Matthew, means more than just living up to a standard of conduct that promises to keep you in good standing at Rotary.

Contrast the Reverend Stanhope with Joseph, who left the one-way street to conventionality when he quit listening to the voices of his world telling him to think only of his reputation, not to rock the boat, and decided to listen to God.

You see, if Joseph had cared about greasing the social wheels, he would never have continued to be mixed up with Mary and—what appeared to everybody who knew them—her illegitimate child.

He could have gone on to a nice quiet life in a colonial with a three-car garage, and a walkout basement in the suburbs—if he’d just listened to the voice of conventional wisdom.

Instead, he listened to the voice of God—and the world was never to be the same. There was Joseph—just trying to figure it all out, when God tapped him on the shoulder and said:

“Joseph, not only is your fiancée pregnant—your whole life is pregnant with the possibilities I’m preparing to unleash. I’m about to let loose a grace and forgiveness on the world that cannot be contained within the confines of conventional wisdom. What I intend to do through Mary and you is literally to bring salvation to the world. ‘She will bear a son, and you are to name him Yahweh saves (or Jesus, for all you Greek speakers), for he will save his people from their sins.’

“I’m not saying it’s going to be easy on you, Joseph—true righteousness never is—but I promise it’ll be interesting. You have no idea who will tell your story.”

In a book entitled Orbit of Darkness, a fictionalized account of the saga of Maximilian Kolbe, by Ian McMillan—and retold by Gregory Jones—there’s a story that begins in Auschwitz in 1941. One of the prisoners, Szweda, is a collaborator with the Nazi guards. He marvels at the camp commandant’s absolute freedom and power to do whatever he wants in the camp. Szweda watches with admiration as the commandant begins a selection process that is a reprisal for an escape. Ten prisoners will die of starvation. One man, initially chosen for the selection, pleads with the commandant that he be spared for the sake of his family. At that point a man emerges from the lineup, and Szweda observes that it is “that little priest,” the one the people talk about because “he holds services and sometimes gives away his rations.”

The priest’s action startles the camp guards, who draw their rifles and machine guns. As the priest speaks, the commandant—this one who before displayed absolute freedom to do whatever he wants in the camp—becomes momentarily flustered. Szweda wonders “what the priest could have said that would crack the exterior of superiority and absolute power.”

The priest has asked to take the other man’s place.

Szweda, who up to this time never questioned his will to collaborate with the Nazi’s, watches as the priest is taken away with ten other men. He watches as “the image of the priest’s face burned into his mind,” because there is something so different about the priest’s character.

The effect of the priest’s action is contagious. It affects not only Szweda, but the other prisoners in the camp and the German guards as well. They simply cannot make sense of the priest’s action—and yet they are also haunted by him. The Germans have tried to get to him in the past through beatings, but nothing has been effective. Now, in the starvation cells, one of the guards, a man named Vierck, becomes bothered by the singing and praying led by the priest. He believes the singing is not only from the men, but is now actually “in the bricks.”

The commandant is also affected. He comes to the priest in the starvation cell and offers him a bite of cheese, and though he notices a “sudden twinge of shocked desire in the priest’s face,” the expression quickly vanishes. The priest consistently asks that the cheese be given to the other men in the starvation cell.

Through the ensuing days in the cell, the effect of the priest on all those around him is magnified and grows more infectious. The other men in the cell with him are affected profoundly by the priest’s character. On the thirteenth day the priest prays, “Behold, O Lord, the dreaming starving skeleton in its feast of the spirit.” He remembers to pray for “those who torture us, pray tenfold for the masters of this empire … that man who offered me cheese—bless him in his trek toward the light.”

The priest ponders the simplicity of the words, “I thirst,” clearly reflecting his own tragic circumstances while also evoking another man who uttered those words while hanging from a cross. With the little voice left in his throat, the priest says to a guard peering in the window, “I forgive you.” He has no regrets for having taken another man’s place. Neither his suffering nor his impending death prevents the priest from continuing his course, refusing the violence that surrounds him and forgiving others in both word and deed.

Vierck [the guard] eventually cannot bear any longer the pressure of the priest’s presence, of the priest’s eyes, of the voices and singing. He recognizes in the priest’s life, in his forgiveness, a call for his own conversion. But [Vierck] cannot bear it. And so he commits suicide by hurling himself onto an electric fence.

The commandant is furious because of Vierck’s weakness. But underneath his fury, he recognizes the priest’s profound threat to the Nazis simply by his refusal to submit to, and thus reproduce, a world of violence. He thinks to himself, “The priest has compromised the stability of a good system … The horrible fact is that if every one of them were magnetized by the example of his extreme, willful selflessness, then the system would topple.”

Ironically, there is nothing more powerful than the priest’s refusal to submit to the Nazi’s power. Later in the book, one man says, “Those who give up their lives, at least in principle, become more dangerous to the Germans than planes or tanks. They become the ultimate weapon.” This weapon suggests that we need an account of forgiveness that represents not a distorted and distorting weakness but an alternative form of power, a forgiveness whose power is found in Christ’s cross and resurrection, a pattern to which the priest’s life and death bears witness. For it is the power that breaks apart the cycles of violence and offers a returning of the announcement of God’s peace. This power shows that violence is neither inescapable nor unlearnable. Nor is it the master of us all (Embodying Forgiveness, L. Gregory Jones, Eerdmans, 1995, pp. 91–98).

In a world that maintains such a casual relationship to violence, a taken-for-grantedness that ought to shame everyone who claims to follow a man who—when given the chance—chose to endure violence rather than inflict it, we need a dangerous mercy, a world altering generosity, the kind that turns reality on its head.

We need a new way of locking arms with those who are too often the targets of cruelty, those who live in fear that the bigwigs who run the show will notice them and begin to stoke the fires of fear and hatred against them—a kindness so destabilizing that the world, as it’s presently ordered, can’t contain it.

Just trying to figure it all out. It’s possible, according to this world, to have a faith so nice that it leaves no tracks behind. It’s possible, according to Matthew, however, to have a faith that’s so odd, so remarkable, so against the grain of this world’s accounts of righteousness that the whole world is literally knocked off its foundations. Just ask Joseph. He opened up the door just a crack to let God in—and death’s been on the run ever since.

And here we are 2000 years later still telling Joseph’s story. One righteous man or woman can make a huge dent in the universe. Who knows? Maybe you.


Last updated 4 months ago on December 18, 2016 5:24 am