Joseph’s boy

Matthew 1:18-25

Those of you who have known me for a while may recall that I took a trip to Tanzania, in East Africa, during the summer of 2014. Most of my time there was spent in the little village of Mtumba, in the central plains outside of Dodoma, as the guest of the local Anglican priest, the Rev. Daudi Chilemu. Incidentally, Daudi is Swahili for David. It was a good trip—life-changing, really—and I learned a lot about people and priorities in what some refer to not as the third world, but as the “two-thirds world,” because two-thirds of all the people on the planet live in countries like Tanzania. The average family income is around a dollar a day, and the normal life expectancy is 65 years, which is a pretty big improvement from 1996, when it was only 49. Life in East Africa is hard. There’s no Social Security or Medicare, and the only people with a regular retirement income are folks who worked in government service: teachers, bureaucrats and the like, and those pensions are not large. Most families eke out a paltry living making things… or selling things… or performing manual labor. There are hospitals and clinics in town that people can go to if they get sick, but that means missing a day of work, and taking a crowded bus over thirty kilometers of bad road to get there. So, folks mostly just tough it out when they get sick, which means sometimes they don’t get better. Like I said, life is hard in East Africa.

Because my host, Fr. Daudi, was a priest in the church… educated, ordained and well-respected, his income was double that of most of his neighbors: two dollars a day. Needless to say, that didn’t go very far in supporting a wife and three children. Most families in Mtumba, Daudi’s included, had to cultivate corn and millet and raise chickens on the side to make ends meet. And Daudi had another expense that he placed at the top of his priority list, even over that of putting food in his stomach: and that was paying private school tuition for his two oldest children. Here in the U.S., many view private school as a bit of a luxury—great if you can afford it, but not a necessity. In most stateside communities, students and their families (who are active and engaged in the educational process) can get what they need in public schools. And, after completing school, most folks are able to find a job that pays the bills and that, perhaps, is even satisfying and meaningful. Three or four decades later, we can retire if we want, happy and healthy, and live the “good life” on the golf course, in the company of our kids and grandkids, just like we see in all the television commercials… right? OK, so I know things don’t always work out that way for many of us, but neither is it an impossibility. Sometimes our retirement dreams do become reality.

But things are a little different in Mtumba in Tanzania in East Africa. Men are the primary wage earners and women work in the home (which usually has dirt floors, and no glass in the windows), raising children, making and mending clothing, feeding chickens, getting water, gathering wood and preparing meals over an open fire… and sometimes having to chase away hyenas. If you’re a man, you work until you can’t work anymore—until your body quits on you. Then you’re done. Assuming you’ve still got a few years left, you have to depend on your children, who are also likely living on a dollar a day, for sustenance. Pretty tough, huh? That’s why Daudi was investing in his kids’ education. Sure, he loved his children and wanted the best for them… and it was a matter of family pride. But Daudi also knew that his children were his Social Security… they were his Medicare. By helping them rise above peer competitors in a subsistence-level economy, Daudi was doing the best he could to ensure his and Mama Chilemu’s survival when his body ran out of steam twenty years down the road. That’s reality in most of the two-thirds world, folks.

And that’s likely how Joseph and Mary lived in first-century Jewish Palestine. Oh, there were some: kings, religious elites, government officials and probably a few wealthy merchants who lived pretty well in the big cities: Jerusalem, Caesarea, Joppa, and the like. But in places like Nazareth and Bethlehem… well, things were pretty tough. You lived by the sweat of your brow, and there were times when you didn’t have enough to eat. Money was scarce, and the Roman taxman was apt to take more than his fair share of what little you had. We don’t really know all that much about Joseph. We know he was a carpenter (cf. Matt 13:55). We know he was engaged to Mary who was young, and a virgin. And Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, meaning that he was faithful to God. But we don’t know what he looked like, how old he was, or even if he had been previously married. It was not uncommon for older men who were widowers to remarry younger wives in hope of siring additional children to help ensure the continuity of their family line. And we can be pretty sure that Joseph was proud of his family line. He was, after all, a direct descendant of the great King David (Matt 1:1-16). Imagine his shame and anger when it appeared that his betrothed had been unfaithful to her vow. And yet, even before the angel came to tell him in a dream that the child in Mary’s womb had been conceived by the Holy Spirit, Joseph had decided that she should not be stoned or otherwise humiliated… but that he would “dismiss her quietly.” He didn’t have to do this. He would have been within his legal rights to demand public and costly satisfaction from Mary’s family. But he didn’t. 

You know, it doesn’t matter whether Joseph was young or old, or previously married or not… the thought of Mary’s betrayal must have cast his entire future into doubt. He had probably sunk most of his meager resources into making a home for his new family, and now it appeared to be all for naught. Finding another suitable mate would take time, and the clock was ticking. What would happen to a man without a family? The thought must have been frightening. But Joseph didn’t give into the anger and the hurt. It was to a righteous man that the angel came in a dream, offering words of comfort… and a command: “You shall name him Jesus (Koine: Ἰησοῦς [Iēsous], which means ‘God helps’), for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). Actually, the name spoken to Joseph by the angel was probably the Hebrew Yeshua (yēšūă‘), which is short for Joshua (Heb: Yĕhôshúa), who was the successor to Moses’ authority during the wilderness years. And, like Mary in Luke’s Gospel, Joseph trusted God and said, “yes.”

In naming Mary’s baby, Joseph took Jesus as his own, essentially adopting him into the kingly line of David, with all of the honor and sign value that that entailed. For at least half a millennium, the Jews had been asking the question: “When Messiah comes, will he be a prophet like Moses? or a king like David?” And God’s answer was yes, on both counts: Mary will bear a son, conceived by the Holy Spirit to save God’s people from their sins. Emmanuel: God with us. He will be at once of the line of David, who was the greatest of all of God’s anointed kings, as well as successor to the power and authority of Moses, the greatest of all of God’s prophets. I’m guessing that this was a lot for Joseph to take in. You’ll notice that he didn’t say anything throughout our Gospel passage today. But, when an angel speaks, sometimes it’s best to keep your mouth shut and just listen… and nod. In any case, through all of the hurt and betrayal and sadness, Joseph remained a righteous man… Joseph remained faithful.  

And I could go on to say, in closing, that that is what God is asking of us in our own day and age: to remain faithful despite all of the hurt and betrayal and sadness of this life. Few if any of us in the pews today are wondering where our next meal will come from, or if we will have a roof over our head tonight, or if we’ll have access to the emergency medical care we need when we need it. And yet, we’ve all got our own stuff… our own fears and disappointments and sorrows… things that distract us from seeing the blessings of God’s Providence that crowd around us from every side. So that would be a good message: Count your blessings! And rejoice!

But, instead, I’ll leave you with a question… and also an answer: What sort of God, immortal, omniscient and all-powerful… would come to Earth for the sole purpose of saving us from our sins? To be with us, to love us, to laugh and cry with us, to be tempted like we are and yet not give in to sin… to show us the way… to set an example for us of what it means to be fully-human, and then willingly suffer death on a cross just to show he wasn’t kidding. What sort of God would do that? A righteous one… a God who is faithful… to us. A God who has been calling out to us since we broke faith with him, and with all of Creation, that fateful day in the Garden. A God who will stop at nothing to bring home his last, lost sheep. That’s Jesus… Yeshua… Joseph’s boy. That’s Emmanuel: God with us. Let us make ready to welcome him into our hearts and into our lives as the feast of his Nativity draws near.

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