Matthew 1:18-25 (Advent 4A)
by Rev. Dr. Bob Jon
There is a TV show in the U.S. that I always found shocking. It is Maury Show. Its website recruits guests by advertising, “Do you have a family mystery that can be solved with a DNA test?” “Do you believe your spouse or lover is cheating on you, and you want them to take a life detector test?” During the show, a woman cries, accusing a man he is the father to her baby, while the baby looks at the camera innocently. Maury pulls out the DNA test results from an envelope and says, “John, you are not the father!” John gets on the couch and starts to dance while accusing the woman of cheating on him with another man. It is rumored that the guests of Maury Show get paid only $300 along with the free plane ticket. But they are desperate to get on the show, often fabricating their story. Originally coming from Korea where it is considered shameful to reveal personal family issues with others, Maury’s Show came to me as a cultural shock.
On this Forth Sunday of Advent, the Gospel of Matthew tells us the story of Joseph. He and Mary had been engaged. Before they married and lived together, however, she was found to be pregnant “from the Holy Spirit.” While neither Matthew nor Luke tells us how Mary conveyed the news to Joseph, one can imagine how distressful it was for Joseph to learn about the pregnancy of his fiancee. If something like this happened today, it would be an enticing story to be recruited by Maury Show. Mary says, “I have told you, Joseph. I have never been unfaithful to you or our engagement. This miraculously happened to me by the Holy Spirit.” “Do you really expect me to believe you, Mary? Let’s go, Maury. Please pull out the card and show me the DNA test result.” What a scandal it would be!
However, Joseph did not bring such a scandal to the public because he was “a righteous man” unwilling to “expose Mary to public disgrace” (1:19). He knew the consequences of being unfaithful to marriage according to the Law – death. “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death … You shall purge the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 22:23). However, Joseph did not do what is “righteous” according to the Law. Rather, he quietly tried to divorce Mary, probably being blamed as the one who, in the eyes of their neighbors, slept with Mary and decided not to marry her. The neighbors would point their fingers at him for being an irresponsible man who abandoned his wife and unborn child.
The Gospel of Matthew calls Joseph a “righteous” man. While he may not be “righteous” by strictly following the Law in this case, Joseph is “righteous” to the heart of God who “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, Hosea 6:6). And he is “righteous” by responding to the message from the angel of God who appeared to him in a dream, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” He believes the words from the messenger and decides to adopt this child so that he would belong to his family with the Davidic lineage. This would fulfill what Prophet Isaiah prophesied, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him” (Isaiah 11:1). Joseph took Jesus as his own son, loving him, nurturing him, and teaching him some life skills as a carpenter.
Throughout my ministry, I have met some families that adopted their children from South Korea. Upon learning that I was coming as their pastor, some of them approached me excitedly and said, “We told our son that our new pastor is going to be a Korean. He is so happy to hear that.” Although they are not their biological children, these parents decided to open the door of their homes, embrace these children, and love them. Of course, it is not easy to raise a child who looks different from you. I met several children adopted from Korea who gradually started to question their dual identities as Korean and American. They soon realized that their school and society would mock them for being different not only from them but also from their own families. As their pastor, I feel privileged to be there with them and witness the tears, prayers, and love of their parents. As Adam Hamilton insightfully notices, God’s redemptive plan was greatly concerned with “one man’s willingness to raise a child who was not his own” (Hamilton, 78).
In NIB, M. Eugene Boring points out that some contemporary readers could favor the Lukan birth story with Mary due to “the modest role assigned to Mary” in the Gospel of Matthew (Boring, 138). However, I believe that Matthew’s version is also critical to understanding a deeper understanding of Jesus’ birth because, in a way, we all are like Joseph. After all, we come to learn about the story of the virgin birth through testimony of others. It is often the case that we do not come to find our faith in God on our own. But someone took their time to read the story to us, answer our questions, and pray with us, as Paul says, “So faith comes from what is heard” (Roman 10:17). Joseph believed in the words of the messenger from God and is called “righteous” by the Gospel of Matthew. Again, Paul says in Galatians 3:6, “Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Therefore, many Christians will gather this Sunday and also next Saturday evening on Christmas Eve to hear the ancient story of how Jesus was born to a virgin, conceived by the Holy Spirit. In “A Sky Full of Children,” Mdeleine L’Engle says, “Don’t try to explain the Incarnation to me! It is further from being explainable than the furthest star in the furthest galaxy” (Watch for the Light, 80) We may not fully understand how the birth of Jesus happened. Joseph probably could not believe the words from Mary either at first. But he later believed in the words from the messenger and raised Jesus as his own. And God reckoned him as “righteous.” While we may not fully comprehend the birth story of Jesus, we might believe that this took place because of the abundant love of God for us and for this world. And God still works God’s redemptive work in this world today through people who boldly say yes to embracing, forgiving, and loving others.