Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (Matthew 1: 18-19)
My last blog post talked about Mary’s courage to live in the “both-and” when she consented to bear the Son of God. In this blog post, I want to give a shout-out to Joseph, son of Jacob, husband of Mary. Joseph was a courageous man.
The Gospel of Matthew (NRSV) says that Joseph was a “righteous” man.
What did it mean to be a righteous man in first century Judaism? For a Jewish man, being righteous meant studying the Torah, worshiping & debating in the synagogue, making pilgrimages to the Jerusalem Temple, and obeying all Jewish laws. A righteous man honored his father & mother, observed Sabbath and kept himself ritually clean.
As a man, Joseph held social, religious, legal, economic, and sexual power in his community. As a righteous man, Joseph carried credibility and authority in his family. He enjoyed a stellar reputation in his village.
Imagine Joseph’s anxiety when he finds out that Mary is pregnant with somebody else’s child. His betrothal to Mary has the legal force of marriage. If he wants to get rid of her, he must divorce her. It was very easy for a man to divorce a woman in that time. All Joseph had to do was write up a statement saying he was divorcing Mary.
It was much harder to avoid public scandal. Joseph is hoping that he can quickly and quietly take care of the situation. He does not want Mary to be humiliated. He does not want to risk Mary’s life and the life of the baby. Stoning was the legal punishment for a woman believed to be a willing partner in adultery.
By planning to divorce Mary, righteous Joseph was obedient to the law. By divorcing her quietly, he was both righteous and kind. We have heard much in the news lately about unrighteous men: men who have repeatedly abused, harassed, bullied, assaulted and molested women and vulnerable men. Men in power who have covered up years of known criminal behavior in order to preserve reputations and earning potential. Men who have bought silence and enforced complicity by fear.
I have been the target of unwanted, sexualized attention multiple times in my life. The first time was in elementary school. A boy had bullied me for months, from one school year in to the next. My parents told me to ignore him. In fifth grade, he came up behind me while I was sitting in my seat and ran his hands up my chest. In order to change classes, I had to explain to the male principal and my current female classroom teacher (with my parents present) why I should be allowed to switch to another teacher’s classroom. I was 11 years old.
Make no mistake. Rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and unwanted sexualized attention are about POWER, not sex.
When those who are targeted report incidents, they are dependent on the men in power to be righteous and courageous like Joseph. On more than one occasion, I have been dependent on Josephs in my life. I have been very fortunate that the men in power have believed me and have taken my experiences seriously.
Joseph was a righteous man and a courageous man. For his time, Joseph was an unusual man in that he did not want Mary publicly disgraced. While he did not believe Mary, he believed an angel who came to him in a dream. Joseph acted in obedience, not to the Jewish law, but to the instructions given to him by an angel of the Lord. Joseph believed the hopeful prophecy of the dream and became Mary’s full partner in the work of birthing Jesus into the world. Just as much as Mary needed Joseph, Joseph needed Mary.
When I found out that I was pregnant with a boy, I was so excited to raise a male who would be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. My husband and I have taught him about honor and responsibility. Our church has helped us teach him about Jesus. Over the years, his father, his school, the church, and I have tried our very best, by the grace of God, to raise a Joseph: a righteous, courageous, and unusual man.
Raising a Joseph is the job of the faith community, particularly the men of the faith community. Men and boys play a critical role in stopping violence against women and girls. If you are looking for a place to start, The General Commission of United Methodist Men offers an 8-week study on gender based violence.
I know that there are many, many righteous men in the United Methodist Church (and other denominations) who have the courage to be unusual. We don’t need to wait for an angel to come in a dream. Believe.
Blessings and thanks,