Monday, December 11, 2006

Just Joseph

Nancy's setting up crèches -- that's right, plural! Very unQuakerly, I know, but she does love Christmas and the Nativity story. I was in the basement hanging a door and noticed a figure still sitting on the worktable where she'd set them out prior to taking them upstairs. It was Joseph – the silent partner in the Christmas story. Baby Jesus, rightfully, gets the most press. Next come the other featured players – Mary, the Shepherds and the Magi. But did you know even horrible old Herod gets as much mention as Joseph in the Nativity stories? Joseph is named just 15 times in the entire Bible – once just by the sobriquet “the carpenter.” Joseph? Well, he’s just Joseph.

On one level that’s a pretty dismissive statement. But on another, it’s quite a complement.
It’s dismissive, of course, because, Joseph – though silent – is a central character in this drama. Here’s a man who evidently is in love with a young woman named Mary. They are engaged to be married. As a carpenter, he can provide her with a good, stable life. And then she does the unthinkable – she gets pregnant.

When we think of how people of faith are to respond to life’s difficulties, we often think of Job, that marvelous Old Testament man. “The patience of Job” is a cliché that is common currency in our language. I suggest, for all of Job’s goodness, there is an even better model for us today and that is the one of Joseph.

What happens to Joseph is almost as calamitous as what happens to Job. His life and reputation are about to be ruined by the actions of the young maid to whom he is betrothed. Dishonor is about to come upon him. Mary is obviously pregnant -- thought to be unfaithful.

That’s where the compliment side of the phrase “Just Joseph” comes into play. You see, Joseph was “just.” The story tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. As such, he can not marry Mary for to do so would be an admission that he had some hand in this breaking of the law. But Joseph is as compassionate as he is “just.” He’s unwilling to expose Mary to the disgrace of public divorce. He therefore chooses a quieter way of obtaining a divorce, requesting one before two witnesses, as permitted by the law. It would leave both his righteousness (his conformity to the law) and his compassion intact.

Which brings us back to the dismissive part of “Just Joseph.” When Mary accepts her angelic announcement, we celebrate it as an act of outstanding faith and courage – which it is.
When Joseph (who gets his word from God via a dream angel instead of a direct visitation) opens his will to that of God, we nod and accept it. We don’t marvel at the faith of “just” Joseph, nor count the cost in reputation for this man. He turns his life, as surely as Mary does, over to God. This good and kind man says “yes.”

I think there are two lessons for us today in Joseph’s story. The first is to never be dismissive of anybody. God chooses whom He will to do His work.

The second lesson is that of personal goodness. That was the hallmark of Joseph – “Joseph, being a righteous man” the Bible says. An important thing about his goodness is its inward nature, not its outward show. We are called to goodness and justice – but not so that others can point to us and compliment us. Instead we are called to goodness and justice in order that we might better serve the God who calls us.

Joseph lives the familiar words of the prophet Micah: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Joseph acts justly. He loves mercy. And he walks humbly with his God. There is no outward show of false spirituality. Instead he listens and obeys.

May we be, at this season and throughout all of our lives, like Joseph -- people of soulful action.

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