Joseph, and the Spiritual Gifts of Men
Advent IV (Year A)
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
22 December 2019
The Gospel lesson this morning is part of Matthew’s birth narrative of Jesus. The first 17 verses of chapter 1 which we did not read, is a list of 42 generations is recounted in order from Abraham to Joseph, to establish Jesus’ royal lineage in the house of David. We pick up the story starting at verse 18, where we see the very practical problems that have arisen as a result of God’s decision to come into the world by way of a virgin birth. The virgin birth made life very complicated not only for Mary, but also for Joseph.
One thing you may have wondered about is why this version of our Scriptural text talks about Mary being engaged to Joseph, yet Joseph refers to Mary as his wife and has the option of divorcing her when he finds out she’s pregnant. If they are only engaged but not married, why does he call her his wife and why would he need to divorce her? The answer is because Mary and Joseph were not engaged in the same sense as we understand it today. Rather, they were betrothed to one another. There is a very big difference. So, here is what is going on.
In the Jewish tradition at the time, marriage consisted of two ceremonies that were marked by two different celebrations. First came the betrothal; and about a year later, the wedding. But the difference then, from what we think of now, is that at the betrothal the woman became legally married. However, she would still live in her father’s house until the day of the wedding. This also means that, since she was legally married, she could not belong to another man unless she was divorced from her betrothed. When the time came for the wedding itself, the betrothed woman was escorted from her father’s house, accompanied by a colorful procession, to the house of the groom. The marriage was not considered completed until the legal tie, which was established at the betrothal, was physically consummated through sexual relations. (1)
So, we meet Mary and Joseph at this time in between their betrothal and their wedding ceremony. When Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant, he is faced with a very difficult choice. Since the going assumption by everyone would have been that Mary had committed adultery, his choice is not: does he stay with her or not, but rather, his choice is by what method he should divorce her.
Joseph had two methods of divorce available to him at the time. He could divorce her publicly in front of their whole community, which would have intensified the terrible public shame Mary and her family would already be enduring. Or, Joseph could divorce her quietly, simply in the company of two witnesses and just move on, sparing her the public spectacle and humiliation. The option of keeping her as his wife was not a common practice and there was very little incentive to do so.
The Scripture narrative tells us that Joseph was a man of good character and, as such, he did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace. So, he decides to divorce Mary quietly. But, before he announces his decision, an angel visits him in his sleep. The angel tells him that the child was begotten by the Holy Spirit, by which Joseph can then infer that she had not committed adultery. In the dream the angel also tells Joseph to name the child Jesus and that Jesus will save his people from their sins. In short, Joseph learns that he was chosen by God to be the male guardian of God’s Son. He accepts Mary has is wife and they postpone the final wedding day and the consummation of their marriage until after Jesus was born.
As his parents, we know that Mary nurtured Jesus as any mother would. We also know that Joseph taught Jesus his trade as a carpenter and taught him the Torah. But, while Mary and Joseph both carried out their roles as human parents to provide for Jesus’ human and material needs, the greatest gift they gave to him in their household was the example of their faith. Mary and Joseph’s faithfulness and obedience to God’s call was indispensable to this whole process. Their faith and obedience helped them prepare for Jesus’ arrival into the world and to figure out how to be husband and wife in this most odd beginning. And, their ongoing faithfulness was needed to provide the spiritual environment where Jesus could be raised and nurtured, so that he could carry out his unique vocation as the Son of God.
During this time of year, many of us are focused on giving material gifts to our children and members of our family. However, it is equally important, especially as Christians, to think about ways in which we are giving the gift of our faith to others by way of our example. How are we right now, being obedient to God, cooperating with him, so we can be God’s instruments of faith and hope and love in the world? What would it have been like for Jesus to be raised in a family which was not committed to their Jewish faith? What would it have been like for Jesus to be nurtured in a household where he was not taught the basics of the Jewish faith, where he was not taught to read the Torah, where he did not feel equipped to teach in the Temple? I don’t think God chose Mary and Joseph arbitrarily.
You may not be surprised to learn that research has shown that one of the biggest factors in whether children will remain in the faith of their parents, is whether or not their parents regularly attend worship. However, you might find it surprising to learn, that research has also shown that it is the church attendance of the father, not the mother, that has the greatest impact on whether children will continue practicing their faith into adulthood. It is not the only factor of course, but it is statistically significant. This out-sized role of fathers as it relates to how we might predict the later religious practices of their children was initially brought forward in a 1994 research study done in Switzerland. (2) However, this finding has also been corroborated by a multi-decade sociological study of thousands of participants conducted by Verne Bengton, a researcher at the University of Southern California. His research can be found in the book called “Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations,” published in 2013 by Oxford University Press. (3)
In chapter 4 of that book, one of the things Bengton examines is the degree of closeness between fathers and their children and the spiritual power this exerts on their lives. Bengtson reports that 56 percent of kids who have a close relationship with their dads share their dad’s level of religious commitment, while just 36 percent of kids with a weaker relationship to their father can say the same thing. In other words, the closeness between dads and their sons and daughters can make a 20-point difference in how serious they are about their faith. (4) The spiritual role of fathers in families is significant.
I’ve been grateful since I’ve been here at St. John’s that Jamie has been publicly supportive of women’s ministry both from the pulpit and in his Sunday School classes. It relieves me from having to do it. As many of you know, Jamie credits the sermon and example of a woman at the first Episcopal Church service he ever attended as playing a significant role of his call to ministry to be a priest. As for me, the opposite was the case. And, here I’d like to acknowledge, in a way that would come across quite differently if Robert or Jamie were up here preaching right now, the important role of men’s spiritual gifts and their Christian life and witness.
I became a Christian, through the example of a father figure who was an important part of my life as a teenager. Other important men in my life encouraged and nurtured me in my faith: My high school basketball coach, who was also an elder in a West Texas Methodist Church. My AFJROTC instructor, an elder in his Missouri Synod Lutheran church. I experienced my first call to ministry by way of suggestion from a Roman Catholic priest. The committed faith of my choir director at the Air Force Academy was instrumental in my discovering the Episcopal Church. Robert has played a critically important role in my healing and returning to the church after a long absence, also helping me rediscover my vocation as a priest. In short, almost every key stage in my own spiritual development has been influenced by men, both lay and ordained, who had important spiritual gifts and active spiritual lives.
I point to Jamie’s experience and my own, to highlight the fact that it is the spiritual gifts of both men and women that are necessary for the flourishing life of the church and raising up men and women in the faith. Neither is better or more important than the other. We know that because God appointed both Mary and Joseph to raise Jesus, to provide for both his spiritual and material welfare and that the history of the church is filled with the examples of faithful men and women throughout the ages.
But, I have a sense that an intentional effort to affirm and cultivate the spiritual gifts of men are not receiving much attention these days. As we become a more egalitarian society and traditional gender roles and family configurations change, I think some men have been casualties in the process. Unlike some, however, I don’t think the answer to helping men discover and exercise their spiritual gifts lies in returning to overly strict patriarchal norms in the family. Rather, I think, that we are at a unique period in history where the nature of men’s spiritual gifts can be explored with fresh eyes, eyes that have been widened by men’s new experiences and changing roles in families and society.
The exercising of spiritual gifts is not a zero-sum game, in which men and women are vying for limited market space, and that one may be gaining or losing at the expense of the other. God has always needed the cooperation of both men and women to be his earthly agents; it’s up to us to figure out how to understand the spiritual gifts God has given each of us, and exercise those gifts faithfully, in the service of God and others. God’s calling of Joseph to be Jesus’ male guardian was both profoundly traditional, but also profoundly creative. God’s calling of Mary to be Jesus’ mother was profoundly traditional, yet also profoundly creative. The family Jesus was raised in was in many ways, very traditional, but in other ways, it wasn’t traditional at all. God can configure traditional things and traditional relationships and deploy them in profound and creative ways, but always with the goal of raising up men and women for service in his kingdom.
So, to all the men out there, if you are wondering about the importance of your life of faith, both inside your families and outside of it, I commend Joseph to you as an example. Joseph is an example of a man of good character who was faithful and obedient to God in the circumstances of his time. He answered God’s call when it came and lived out one of the most challenging vocations any man could have, being the male guardian of God’s only Son. Joseph stepped up and did the hard work. He had every legal reason to divorce Mary and he didn’t. He loved her as his wife and raised Jesus as his son. And, just as God needed Joseph to play his part in the unfolding of the kingdom of God, God needs you to play your part, too. And, in whatever ways your roles in family, church, and society unfold, know that there are both women and men out there who support you and want you to nourish and exercise your spiritual gifts as well. God needs you; your family needs you; society needs you; the church needs you.
- Hayyim Schauss, “Ancient Jewish Marriage,”https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ancient-jewish-marriage/ (no date). Accessed 17 December 2019
- Werner Haug and Phillipe Warner, “The demographic characteristics of the linguistic and religious groups in Switzerland,” in The Demographic Characteristics of National Minorities in Certain European States, Volume 2 of Population Studies No. 31, edited by Werner Haug et. al., published by the Council of Europe Directorate General III, Social Cohesion, Strasbourg, January 2000
- Vern Bengton, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed on Down Across Generations, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
See also John Stonestreet and G. Shane Morris: “Dads Take Your Kids to Church: Fathers’ Outsized-Role in Children’s Faith” March 12, 2019. https://www.christianheadlines.com/columnists/breakpoint/dads-take-your-kids-to-church-fathers-outsized-role-in-children-s-faith.html. (Accessed 21 December 2019)