Joseph is probably the most misunderstood participant in the Christmas drama. Like comedian Rodney Dangerfield, Joseph might righteously complain, “I don’t get no respect!” This week we pay Joseph some of the respect he surely deserves, for without his gifts of hospitality, acceptance and love, the story of Christmas would have no beginning. And with these gifts, Joseph is a model for all who are called by God to serve in supportive roles in God’s purposes.
The women’s movement has succeeded in making biblical scholars and church liturgists more sensitive to the presence of the strong, courageous, talented and sometimes wily women of faith portrayed throughout Scripture. Yet despite all that women have contributed to the faith, the most venerated woman in Christian history is still Mary, whose whole reason for being remembered is that she was a mother. And not just any mother—she was Theotokos, “Mother of God.”
In the Christmas stories, as at no other time and place in the liturgical calendar, we focus on the words and witness of a woman, and on that most quintessential of all “woman’s work,” giving birth. It might be that the birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel will now find itself rediscovered by the burgeoning of the new “men’s movement.” If ever there was a male figure whose contributions and faithfulness have been shunted to the side, it is Joseph.
Joseph is usually remembered for almost dumping Mary when she became pregnant before their formal marriage. Other than that, he is seen as little more than that guy leading the donkey on Christmas cards, or the rather ineffectual fellow who couldn’t even find a fit place for his wife to give birth, or the tall kid wearing his father’s bathrobe and holding a big stick as a staff, who doesn’t do or say anything in children’s Christmas pageants.
Is there any worse role in a Christmas pageant than that of Joseph? Mary coos and beams and acknowledges all the visitors, shepherds adore, angels sing, wise men bring gifts, and even those children cast as sheep and cows get to make animal noises and wear really net headgear. But Joseph only gets to stand there.
Obviously, Joseph, in the eyes of most of us, is a highly peripheral figure in this whole story. In Matthew’s text, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Here it is Joseph who grappled with the unexpected and upsetting intrusion of the Holy Spirit into his nicely-planned life. In Matthew, the whole miracle of Christmas momentarily rested on Joseph’s shoulders, awaiting his freely chosen decision to either accept or reject the stunning news of an impending Messiah – and the shocking way in which this salvation would enter the world.
It was one thing to read and venerate the prophets and their words. It was quite another thing to have one’s own betrothed suddenly become the chosen virgin, to be pregnant when not yet married. But Joseph’s reaction was one of complete openness, confidence and acceptance. At this time of year when we all become a little more aware of our own blessings and the needs of others, we see that Joseph practiced the ultimate in hospitality. He opened his heart and spirit, his home and his whole future, to the intrusion (it must have seemed more like an invasion) of the divine.
The trusting welcome Joseph gave to the divine he also extended to Mary – whose own openness to the power of God had placed her in a precarious position, completely dependent upon Joseph’s compassion and trust. The courtesies Joseph freely offered Mary were extensive. He gave her his name – which safeguarded her reputation and welfare as well as gave the expected child the authority of a Davidic lineage and heritage.
But Joseph did not just give Mary his name and then set her aside. Not only did Joseph keep Mary with him throughout the duration of her pregnancy, during this time he did not try to make her take on the intimate duties of a wife, or exercise his own “conjugal rights.” Joseph’s obedience to the divine message meant he had to see to it that Mary remained sexually pure until after the birth of the child.
Joseph’s dedication to Mary was so complete that when he traveled to Bethlehem for the ordered census – as recorded in Luke’s Gospel – he took her along. She was his family now, no matter what her condition or how her pregnancy had come about.
Our modern interpretations of Luke’s birth narrative, which is by far the best known of the Christmas texts, has done much to color our view of Joseph as a do-nothing, ineffectual character in this whole drama. The story of the journey to Bethlehem and the birth itself, when viewed through lenses ground to focus on only Western European cultural traditions, finds this ordeal strange and cruel.
We see Joseph foolishly dragging a very pregnant Mary out on a long, hard trip. Instead we should see a man who had so welcomed the Holy Spirit into his life that he took the pregnant Mary for his wife without any reservations or revenge. She was so thoroughly his wife that he did not dream of leaving her name off the official Roman roll-call being taken. He brought her, with a pregnancy too advanced for the amount of time they had been formally married, right into the middle of all his relatives during this Roman-forced family reunion.
Not only do we usually castigate Joseph for taking Mary on this trek, but we then interpret the rest of Luke’s birth description to suit our Western sensibilities and thus make Joseph look even more impotent. Luke casually notes that there was no room at the inn so that when the child was born, he was laid in a manger. How horrible! Was this the best Joseph could provide for poor Mary? If Bethlehem was indeed Joseph’s family home, why could he not arrange for something better?
Over 30 years ago, a number of scholars have tried to shed some light on the truth about Joseph’s family’s situation by investigating Palestinian peasant living conditions and customs. Kenneth E. Bailey (“The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7,” Theological Review, 2 , 33-44) points out the middle-Eastern milieu behind this text that challenges the assumptions of modern readers.
The most important point to keep in mind is that it would go without saying (and does so in Luke) that if Joseph and his pregnant wife showed up in his family’s village of origin, they would be greeted as long-lost brothers and sisters. No effort would be spared on their behalf. Kinship ties were the strongest, most important realities governing the everyday life of these peasants. To turn away visiting relatives was positively unthinkable.
Mary’s condition would only reaffirm that sociological fact. If Mary had shown up pregnant and alone in a strange town, the story might have been different. But she had Joseph’s name and the status of wife, making her pregnancy a positive, joyful expectation.
But still we are appalled at the testimony that there was no room at the inn. The word translated in Luke as “inn” is katalyma – a term elsewhere used to designate a special guest chamber – often attached to a home. Indeed it is in a katalyma where Jesus and the disciples gathered for their last Passover supper (Mark 14:14, Luke 22:11). What seems likely then is that upon arriving in Bethlehem, Joseph sought out family with which to stay. Yet because of the census, the town was crowded with visitors and the separate guest room of this relative’s house was already filled.
What we find as the most offensive of texts – that the baby Jesus when born was “laid in a manger” – also takes on new significance when viewed in a middle-Eastern light. In our Western arrogance we see this wimpy Joseph settling his whimpering, laboring wife into a stable for the night, leaving her nowhere to put the newborn when it arrived but in a feeding trough for animals.
What Bailey points out is that Palestinian peasants kept any livestock they might own in their homes during cold nights. Not only were the animals likely to be their most valuable possessions, they also added to the home’s warmth at nights. To accommodate this arrangement, Palestinian homes were often constructed with an upper level to be used by its human occupants, leaving the packed earth floor below for the animals. Built into this floor were wooden or stone feeding troughs – mangers – with sturdy sloping sides that served nicely as a cradle.
The events of Jesus’ birth now read quite differently. Joseph brings Mary to the home of some relatives. With their separate guest chamber already filled, the family invites Joseph and Mary to join them in their regular living quarters.
There in the midst of family, and certainly with other women to attend her (for childbirth was ritually unclean for men), Mary gave birth. Once the baby was cleaned and well swaddled, he was placed in the safety of a secure manger.
Just as Joseph welcomed Mary and her child, and God’s Messiah, into his life, and just as he invited God’s Holy Spirit to work through all of them, so Joseph’s own relatives surely would have likely extended the hospitality of their home and their help to the young couple. Jesus’ birth was therefore not a foreshadowing of his later rejection by the Jews. It is a lesson for all of us in the fine art of being gracious and hospitable to the stranger in our midst and in the strangeness of God’s ways.
Supportive roles, like Joseph’s, are worthy of as much praise as are many opportunities for “lead roles” in this life. If it can happen for a humble peasant man and young woman, it can happen to anyone who is willing when God comes tapping on your shoulder.
And you never know—you just might be supporting and playing a major part in God’s unfolding, history-making plan for the Kingdom.
*Sermon Resource: Christian Globe Networks, Inc., Collected Works, by Leonard Sweet