Ray-Thomas Memorial
Presbyterian Church

Sermons

Joseph

Matthew 1: 18-25                                                         The Rev. Dr. Carrie Scott

People sometimes ask me questions about Joseph, but usually what they ask is something along the lines of clarification about Mary or Jesus. For instance, folks ask “We know Joseph has of the house and lineage of David, but since he wasn’t really Jesus’ biological father, how did Jesus become part of the house and lineage of David?” It’s a question that sort of mentions Joseph, but isn’t really about Joseph. That reality seems to be descriptive of Joseph’s whole life. He seemed to be the man it was never about; the wanna-be hanging in the wings; the other guy in the play who doesn’t really matter. People remember his name, of course, and know that he was betrothed to Mary. There are certainly manger scenes and artwork depicting the Holy Family. But try to find a stained-glass window or work of fine art depicting Joseph alone, or even Joseph with Jesus. We’ve got hymns about Mary and Jesus, but poor Joseph is left out in the cold. The Gospel of Luke tells us about Elizabeth and Zechariah and of course Mary. Luke tells us things Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary said and did. But it doesn’t tell us about Joseph. Joseph is only in the Gospel of Matthew. But even here Joseph doesn’t speak. Some feel as though if Joseph is a patron saint, he should be the patron saint of those who are called, but called to silent witness or what may feel like irrelevancy. But it strikes me, that may be Joseph did something of more importance, even in his silence, than many whose words are recorded in books.

For all that Joseph didn’t seem to matter much, for all his words are not remembered, the role he played was pivotal. 

Joseph was a good, decent, righteous man; a good, decent righteous man who woke up one day to find his life in shambles. It’s not clear how he found out that Mary was pregnant. Scripture only says “before they lived together she was found to be with child…”  She was found. She was found out. Mary was “with child” and Joseph knew it wasn’t by him.  He must have felt his trust was betrayed, his love violated, his name ruined, his future dreams smashed. A whole lot of men would want revenge.

Fred Craddock [i]imagines him going to going to his closest friends for counsel. What should he do? Craddock imagines his friends telling him to read the Bible, and then immediately pointing out that the Law commanded that he charge her publicly, perhaps to force out the male perpetrator or to determine if she was in fact raped, which tragically, even in the Law, still ultimately tended to blame the woman. Either way she’d face death. Craddock says that Joseph was the first person in the New Testament to learn how to read the Bible; to not read it like the Pharisees do, who go to the literal letter of the law. But to read it in the spirit of God, who Scripture repeatedly tells us is gracious and slow to anger.

Joseph did not rush to the many Scripture passages he could have used to abuse, humiliate, disgrace, harm or hurt Mary.

Joseph was shamed, insulted, wounded about as profoundly as a man can be wounded. But he resolved to divorce Mary quietly.  No public charges. No public hearing. No further destruction of Mary’s already seemingly destroyed life. Word still got out. Later in the gospels we read Jesus’ detractors didn’t hesitate at all calling Him a bastard child, born of fornication (John 8.41). But it wasn’t Joseph who spread that word. Instead, the portrayal we are given was one of a man who was seeking that holy balance – abiding by the Law of the Lord in which fornication and adultery are clearly forbidden – and yet also sparing her as much pain as he could.  

Somehow Joseph understood that the Law, if it is God’s law, in all its complexity, allows for responses that are compassionate and merciful. It offers responses in which you neither assume the worst of the other nor seek the maximum punishment. Joseph understood what legalistic Pharisees never understand. One cannot be truly righteous if one is not truly compassionate.

He resolved to divorce her quietly.

That’s not to say any of this was easy for him. When something like this happens, when someone hurts you the way he was hurt, it’s hard not to become fixated on it. You try to distract yourself. You try to think about other things. But you keep going over it in your head. How did it happen? Why did she do it?  What else could he have done? What could he have said?  It might have been hard for God to get a word in edgewise with all the thoughts pouring through Joseph’s head. Maybe that’s why God went to him in a dream.  I wonder sometimes how often we can’t hear God speaking because our thoughts are so cluttered and busy with our thoughts. So God spoke to him in a dream. In the deep of night, in the quiet of night, when his own dream was destroyed, God gave him a new one.  

Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.

I don’t know if that was an answer to a prayer or a new directive. I wonder if the dream was as much relief as surprise. I wonder if Joseph had wanted to forgive Mary all along.  

But surely it was a relief as much as a revelation.  The angel told him she wasn’t a sinner. She had not sinned against him. She had not violated his trust. She was an agent of God.

How ironic, in all this consideration of sin, that the angel said, “You will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Joseph did as the angel commanded. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t make a long speech. But what he did mattered more than all the words credit him with. As much as Mary provided her womb, Joseph provided a place, a safe space, apart from scandal, a place for the baby to be born and thrive. He provided a home, a lineage, a family. He offered to be with baby Jesus, so that Jesus, Emmanuel, could grow up to be with us.

You know, Scripture doesn’t tell us about Jesus’ young life, and maybe that’s why we don’t read more about Joseph. But surely Joseph did more than sit beside Mary and the cows in the manger. He helped raise that baby. He fed him. He provided for him. He taught him a trade. He taught him how to be a carpenter. He took him to the synagogue. He taught him the Scriptures. He modelled for him the very definition of a good man, a righteous man. Not a man of the letter of the law, but a man of gentle compassion and tender mercy.

And sure enough, the way Jesus read the Bible, the way Jesus understood love, had a lot to do with the kind of forgiving, sheltering, gentle, quiet, protective, healing love he surely witnessed in Joseph.

 After all, when Jesus spoke of love he talked about turning the other cheek, forgiving seventy times seven, and finding a way to reconcile and come to each other again. I suspect Joseph did more than any of us realize.

I don’t know why Joseph isn’t in stained glass windows or why we don’t sing about him. Very few of us will be called to be like Mary, but likely most of us here have been called in the ways Joseph was – to make a home for God.

All with ears to hear, hear. Amen.



[i] Cited in Copenhaver, Martin B., "Jesus' Other Parent," Journal for Preachers, 2007.



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