Matthew 1: 18-25
Last Sunday, we posed the question: Why Mary? This morning, we ask another: Why Joseph?
Actually, there’s not a lot of information provided about Joseph in the gospels. The most we learn
about Jesus’ earthly father is based on Matthew’s narrative. So we turn our attention to that 1st
chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew.
(Read Matthew 1:18-25)
Of all the characters in the nativity scene, Joseph is the one who seems to stand furthest in the
shadows. Mother Mary hovers over the child. Shepherds bluster their way to the manger, glowing
with angel light. The so-called wise men -- when they eventually arrive from the east -- draw near the
Child in reverence and generosity. But Joseph remains at the edge of the Christmas picture. We name
churches and parochial schools after him. We elevate him to sainthood. But the fact is, we don’t know
much about the guy.
In the seventeen verses leading up to this morning’s lesson, Matthew offers a Jesus genealogy.
Joseph is there introduced as “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the
Messiah”; son of “Jacob”; grandson of “Matthan”; great grandson of “Eleazar”; great, great grandson
of “Eliud”; and back it goes all the way to “Abraham….father of Isaac.” Matthew makes the point that
Joseph came from the house and lineage of David, who was the greatest king in Israel’s collective
memory. Just as a point of information, Luke in his genealogy does not agree on the details, listing
Joseph’s father as “Heli”; his granddad as “Matthat”; and his great granddaddy as “Levi.” Luke does
agree with Matthew that Joseph is descended from David. So we know where Joseph came from,
although we are not sure about all the specifics. Nor do we need be.
We don’t know for certain where Joseph lived either. According to Matthew, we might conclude
that Joseph and Mary resided in a house in Bethlehem. When King Herod became enraged over the
birth of Jesus, the family fled to Egypt. Then after Herod’s death, they traveled to the northern city of
Nazareth where Jesus grew up. According to Luke, Joseph was living in Nazareth when Mary became
pregnant, and only went to Bethlehem – the ancestral city of David – when the emperor had decreed a
census. Meanwhile, Mark’s and John’s Gospel’s don’t mention Joseph at all. Even the occupation of
Joseph – who we’ve long esteemed as a carpenter – is attested only once in the gospels. Matthew, in
his 13th chapter, tells us of Jesus coming to his hometown, and people asking, “Is this not the
That is virtually all we know about Joseph from the Scriptures. He had traces of royal blood in his
veins, albeit centuries diluted. He was probably a carpenter. And his ancestral roots go back to Bethlehem.
Apart from the passage we read this morning, that’s it. When we ask “Why Joseph?,” his lineage may at least in part
explain God’s choice, as the writings of the Old Testament prophets claimed that the Messiah would
arise from the house of David. Beyond that though, was there anything else that
qualified Joseph to be the wife of Mary and earthly father of Jesus?
We do learn something very important about Joseph in Matthew’s narrative that may be a lot more
important than ancestry in the bigger picture. Matthew describes Joseph as “a righteous man.” In his
treatment of Mary, clearly pregnant with a child that was not his, Joseph also demonstrated that he lived
according to the justice of God; a justice tempered by compassion and mercy. For that detail alone, he is
to be commended. But there were surely many men who were righteous at that time, and many who
lived according to the justice of God. So, why Joseph? And what of his righteousness?
That term “righteous” is a word that shows up often in Matthew’s Gospel. While righteousness
is the Old Testament virtue describing those who keep God’s Law, that is not necessarily the meaning
of the word in this New Testament text. What makes Joseph deserving of being labeled “a righteous
man” by Matthew? Catholic priest and scholar Raymond Brown in his book The Birth of the Messiah
cites three long-held explanations of Joseph’s purported righteousness. First, Brown claims that Joseph
was righteous because he was kind and merciful. Psalm 112 speaks of such righteousness: “Happy are
those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments…… They rise in the darkness as a
light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.” The qualities of graciousness and
mercy are identified as a central feature of being right with God. Matthew makes it clear that Joseph’s
goodness was the reason he was unwilling to expose Mary’s scandalous pregnancy in a public way, even
though according to Jewish Law, he would have been well within his rights to do so. Nevertheless, it
seems Joseph needed to be told by the angel to take Mary into his home and make her his wife. Joseph
was sufficiently gracious and merciful to resolve to “dismiss her quietly, but not quite merciful and
gracious enough to take her immediately as his wife. God needed to intervene before Joseph made that
decision. That’s okay.
Brown’s second explanation for the righteousness assigned to Joseph has to do with his piety.
Across the centuries, some Christians have held the view that when Joseph heard Mary was with child,
he immediately believed the child was of the Holy Spirit. According to this point of view, Joseph was
awestruck that God would choose his betrothed Mary to bear the Savior. Yet he worried he himself
might be unsuitable. So out of reverence for God and deep respect for Mary, Joseph decided to break
off the engagement. His reverence and respect is why some thought him righteous. As pious as it
sounds, this view assumes more than is reasonable. There is no evidence that Joseph learned about
the origin of the pregnancy right away. Moreover, according to Matthew, he doesn’t discover the Holy
Spirit’s role until it is revealed to him in a dream; a dream which takes place after he’s decided to send
Brown’s third long-held view of Joseph’s righteousness reflects that Old Testament virtue of obedience to the Law.
The righteous person takes God’s Law seriously, knowing God gave it to us and expects us to keep it.
Just imagine how Joseph must have felt when he got news that Mary was expecting. He knew he wasn’t the father.
However much he loved her, he probably tossed and turned all night thinking about it; the commandments of God staring him in the face.
The Law was clear. According to Deuteronomy: “If…..this charge is true, that evidence of the young woman’s virginity was not found,
then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her
town shall stone her to death…” Joseph was an obedient man. He knew that commandment. But he
showed mercy for Mary, and awe for what God had done in her womb. Even though he was initially
hesitant to take Mary as his wife, he went beyond what the Law required. He practiced what we might
call a “higher righteousness”; a righteousness, wed to justice, tempered by mercy. This is the righteousness
Jesus Himself years later called His disciples to practice.
So according to Brown, righteousness has been historically defined by these three things: mercy,
piety, and obedience to God’s Law. I would suggest that not only did Joseph show evidence of all these
in the way he dealt with Mary and the news of her pregnancy. Joseph effectively provides a broader
view of righteousness that is steeped in love; a love Jesus Himself incarnated throughout His earthly life
and ministry. So in answer to the question “Why Joseph?” it is because – as Matthew claimed – Joseph
was a “righteous man.” But more than that, Joseph was a man of higher righteousness which reflects
the very righteousness of Almighty God. This qualified Joseph to be the one upon whose knee Jesus
would learn, and grow into His destiny as the Christ of God; the righteous branch of David; the Savior of
humankind; the incarnation of divine and perfect love.
Joseph was, as all of us are, called to pursue a righteousness which far exceeded the lifeless obedience
of the scribes and Pharisees. It’s the kind of righteousness which comes to us through the words of Scripture,
but ultimately must be lived off the page. In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Tom Long writes this:
“Joseph becomes, therefore, a model for the Christian life. He learns that being truly righteous does
not mean looking up a rule in a book and then doing the ‘right thing’; it means wrestling with the complexities of a problem,
listening for the voice of God, and then doing God’s thing. To be a faithful disciple means prayerfully seeking to discover
what God is doing in the different situations we face. How is God at work here to show mercy and saving power?
Being righteous is never simply being pure and good in the abstract; genuine righteousness is always joining with God to do God’s
work in the world.”The lesson Joseph learns is the same lesson that Jesus taught His disciples. In the 5th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel,
Jesus teaches: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the
kingdom of heaven.” Jesus then goes on to give a series of statements beginning with “You have heard that it was said…..
but I say to you” which reflect a higher righteousness; such as “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall
love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ [that’s the letter of the Law], but I say to you, love your enemies and pray
for those who persecute you” [that’s the spirit of God’s Law, which is a law of love]. Where do you suppose Jesus
learned much of this? From his earthly father. That’s why Joseph.
I want to conclude with words of an anonymous 13th century poet. He or she wrote a dialogue that
interprets Joseph’s dilemma in taking Mary as his wife. It is a conversation between Joseph and the angel
that takes place in a dream. The angel begins: “Marvel not, Joseph, marvel not on Mary mild; forsake her
not, though she be with child.” Joseph replies: “I, Joseph, wonder how this may be, that Mary waxed
great when I and she, Ever have lived in chastity; If she is with child, it is not by me.” So the angel explains:
“Marvel not, Joseph, marvel not; The Holy Ghost with merciful distance, In here hath entered without
offense, God and man conceived by his presence, And she virgin pure without violence. Marvel not, Joseph,
marvel not.” Joseph ponders these things in his heart, and says: “What the angel of God to me doth say,
I, Joseph, must and will humbly obey, Or else privately I would have stolen away, but now I will serve here
‘til that day.” With that, the angel makes a final proclamation: “Marvel not, Joseph, marvel not. Joseph,
thou shalt here maid and mother find, Here the Son, redeemer of all humankind. Thy forebears of pains to
unbind; Therefore muse not this matter in thy mind. Marvel not, Joseph, marvel not.”
When he awoke, Joseph, from the house of David, did what he was told. He took Mary into his home.
And his righteousness prepared the way for the salvation of the world. Why Joseph? That’s why.