“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Marriage was different in Joseph’s and Mary’s day. Nearly always arranged by the parents and, typically, transactional, marriage was a contract between two families for some mutual benefit and to assure inheritance rights. Once betrothed (what we might call engaged), the contract was set. Even if the ceremony had not taken place nor had the marriage been consummated, once betrothed, only a legal and public judgment–a divorce, could break the contract.
It was common in those days for the period of betrothal to last a year or more–sort of a fidelity proving period. Mary’s pregnancy was scandalous. Jewish Law allowed Joseph to place Mary under the judgment of the elders for “infidelity.” She would have certainly been found guilty and the punishment would have been stoning.
Matthew’s gospel makes the point that Joseph is a righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace (and, likely, a terrible death), so, instead, he decides to quietly dismiss her. I don’t question Joseph’s righteousness, but it may also be that he himself was a bit afraid of being involved or associated with such a scandal. These things just don’t look good in one’s family tree.
Matthew’s gospel begins with a genealogy, a genealogy that establishes Joseph’s lineage, his family tree, from Abraham through David. The interesting thing is that Matthew’s genealogy doesn’t hide the scandals. We see the true ‘humanity’ of the family tree of Joseph: Judah and Tamar; Salmon and Rahab; David and the wife of Uriah. I’ll leave it to the reader to look up those stories for the details, but suffice to say, each represents a couple and a birth that might even raise eyebrows today. Scandalous! Not the sort of characters a “righteous” person would want to appear in his or her family tree–the sort of characters and stories a righteous person would be afraid to have discovered, let alone admit.
But there lies the hope in this story—the hope and the power and the glory. It is also where Joseph’s story reveals the gift of Christmas. The human family tree IS scandalous: every branch is twisted; every fruit is blemished. But just as the angel told Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, to “adopt” the child, Jesus, as his own—despite the scandal of his conception, so, too, does Jesus adopt us as his own despite the scandals, the sins, of our lives.
Jesus saves us from sin by adoption. Jesus is not afraid to take us as his children. Indeed, in baptism we are made his children by the Holy Spirit: born again into God’s righteous family despite ourselves or our worthiness. We are saved by faith and not fear; saved through God’s love and not our own purity or perfection. Jesus’ love—a love more powerful than human sin and scandal, is given to us through adoption. Though our branches may be twisted, and our fruit blemished, we are children of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus is not afraid to make us his own.