Make no mistake about it, Jesus was born into a culture wrapped in male privilege. In fact, the gender climate in first century Palestine was several orders of magnitude more biased in favor of men than our culture is in this country. Women in Jesus’ day could not own property or testify in court, and they couldn’t leave the home without the permission of their fathers or husbands.
Or consider the prayer the Rabbis would pray each morning:
Blessed are you for not having made me a Gentile, Blessed are you for not having made me a slave, Blessed are you for not having made me a woman.
Imagine your pastor starting his quiet times each morning with that little gem…
Each year at Christmas time, we hear lots of stories about Mary, mangers and magi. We talk about shepherds, spices and stars. But it seems to me we rarely talk about Joseph. Joseph, engaged to Mary and soon to be father of the incarnate Lord. This weekend I was struck by Joseph’s side of the story, recorded for us in Matthew 1:18-25:
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
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 had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
This passage gives us a window into Joseph’s world. Imagine it. You’re engaged to a woman who is suddenly pregnant. Not only is she pregnant, she believes that the baby she is carrying is the long-awaited Messiah.
As if that’s not enough, the Jewish law, which you follow devoutly, is clear. “Do not commit adultery” is commandment #7 and Leviticus 20 sentences adulterers to death. On top of that, Roman law dictated that if a husband failed to divorce an unfaithful wife, he would be considered a panderer for treating his wife as a prostitute.
Add all of this up and toss in the male bias embedded in the culture, and you would expect Joseph to bring Mary before the elders and charge her with her crime.
If you’re Joseph, on one hand, you love Mary. On the other, the law is clear. What do you do?!?
To be honest, at first glance, I’m unimpressed with Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary. I want the gender revolutionary Joseph. I want him to so say, “I know what the law says, but I’m with you Mary. We’ll fight this system together!”
But take a closer look, because Joseph’s solution is more nuanced than that. He’s decided to “quietly” divorce her. You see, Joseph is concerned with both the law AND with Mary’s well-being. He wants to honor God by observing the law, but he also wants to spare Mary from a public shaming. To pursue a quiet divorce would likely cost him. After all, going public would mean that he would be given Mary’s dowry; it would also mean that his reputation would be preserved.
Against every cultural expectation, then, Joseph chooses to honor both God and Mary. Gender revolutionary? Maybe not. But sometimes revolutions start with subtle actions from righteous people.
Perhaps because of Joseph’s righteous and compassionate heart, the Lord decides to intervene. Joseph meets an angel, and the theophany cements his resolve. After that he’s all in.
This Christmas, let’s remember Joseph. A man of righteousness and compassion. A man who became a gender revolutionary.
In the end, I love how the story ends for Joseph. He gets his wedding. He gets to name Jesus. He gets to parent the Word Made Flesh. In fact, later, when Jesus is identified as a carpenter in Matthew 13:55, you get a window into just how much influence Joseph was allowed to have in the life of the young Messiah.
As we’ll see in a week or so, Jesus was revolutionary in his treatment of women. Ultimately, I wonder if Joseph taught him that too.
What about you? What small step could you take to bless the women around you today?