So often the Sunday Lectionary does us no favors: we get good chunks of Scripture, yes, but way too often we get chunks that are separated from its context or leave out some really juicy stuff. And right when you get upset about that, the Lectionary gives us a break: by breaking up the chunk that is the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we don’t get that famous bore-fest that is the genealogy of Jesus.
The end of that boring list does get interesting, though: Matthew “breaks the standard pattern of a genealogy by failing to identify Joseph as Jesus’ father. After fifteen whole verses that repeated the line “the father of, the father of, the father of,” suddenly in verse 16 Joseph is “the father of” no one but is instead listed as “the husband of Mary.”1 Not that Joseph wouldn’t have made a great father. But Joseph had a bigger job to do.
The first thing he had to do was not have his fiance killed. Joseph didn’t believe Mary when she told him how she managed to get pregnant when she was supposed to be a virgin waiting for him. In Joseph’s defense, “The Holy Ghost got me pregnant” is not the most believable story. So what do you do when the young woman you knew and trusted, the young woman who was most likely your second cousin, that pretty young thing that you were steadily learning to love, shames you in the worst possible way? Well, if you were a Jew in Roman Palestine, you had a few options. You could have her stoned to death; you could have her stoned to death and demand her family give back the engagement gifts; you could do both those things and have the guy that got your fiance pregnant stoned to death as well. Or you could do what Joseph did.
St. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a just man. My mother always drilled it into my head that my name, my reputation, was worth more than anything. I haven’t always followed that admittedly good advice, but apparently Joseph knew the value of a good name. Despite the fact that Joseph never speaks in Scripture, we have no idea what he looked like or what his favorite dish was, despite no specific descriptions of Joseph, we have always known what we needed to know about him: that he was a just man, a righteous man. And being a just man, Joseph, Matthew tells us, was “unwilling to put her,” that is Mary, “to shame.” He resolved to divorce her quietly; to not tell her parents, or for that matter his parents. He resolved to not tell the rabbi or go to the Temple courts. Joseph heard some of the worst, shameful, devastating news anyone could hear, and he didn’t go looking for a pound of Mary’s flesh.2
Shame is a sticky, nasty thing. Unlike some other forms of personal pain, shame tends to stick around for an inordinate amount of time; shame causes people, especially men, to do some extreme things. In some cultures, shame leads to suicide, like the samurai who would commit seppuku, ritual self-disembowelment. From strict Muslim countries like Syria, you hear of children having their hands run over by cars because they shamed their family, or women being stoned or buried alive and beheaded because of the shame of adultery. Shamed men in the western world change their names and move to where no one knows them. Shame seems to be emotion to be solved rather than alleviated.
And so here we find our hero, Joseph, in just this situation. He was shamed, but he was unwilling to put his young love Mary to shame, he was unwilling to let that shame get in the way of the purposes of God. The earthly life of Jesus begins with a mother who said yes to God and a foster father who could look shame in the face and love the one who shamed him. In the delightful workings of God, God found a foster-father for His Son who acted just like Him. So the story of the Incarnation, the story of Immanuel, God with us, the whole story of Jesus is a story of shame resolved. So no matter what has shamed you, whatever sin you have committed or sin that has been committed against you, remember Joseph; whenever you cannot bring yourself to look into the face of God because of your shame, remember that Holy Child, who looked back into Joseph’s eyes of shame with the loving eyes of the Living God. This is the Gospel, that no matter what we have done, no matter what we have had done to us, that same Child, that same Jesus, His eyes still meet ours when we look to Him.
2These last two sentences came from somewhere, and now I can’t find it.