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Sunday Reflection: God’s Intervention in the birth of Jesus (Dec 24, 2017)

 

FORTH SUNDAY OF ANNUNCIATION
 

 

God’s Intervention in the birth of Jesus.(Mathew 1:18-24)

 

Bible Text

(18) Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit. (19) Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. (20) Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. (21) She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (22) All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: (23) “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” (24) When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

 

Interpretation

 

(18) Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit.

 

Infidelity after betrothal

According to the Jewish custom, betrothal was the first part of the marriage when bridegroom and bride made an agreement that was binding. Both of them were known as husband and wife. However, they could not live together like married couples until their official wedding would take place a year after. Any infidelity in between betrothal and wedding was considered adultery and was subject to punishment.

 

(19) Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.

 

Need of divorce after betrothal

Joseph was considered as a righteous man because he was a devout observer of the Mosaic law. He had to do justice to himself and to Mary. His dilemma was that he was uncertain of what was the truth. Joseph suspected Mary’s credibility and believed that she had violated the law and got pregnant from somebody after her betrothal with him. Since betrothal had legal validity, he had to divorce her to free himself from his legal bond with her. He had no evidence to prove her guilt other than her pregnancy from someone else.

 

Dilemma of Joseph

The law stated thus: “If there is a young woman, a virgin who is betrothed, and a man comes upon her in the city and lies with her, you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city and there stone them to death: the young woman because she did not cry out though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst.” (Deut. 22:23-24). In Mary’s case, this was not the situation. There was no first hand evidence to prove Mary’s guilt and no man was found guilty of abusing her. Joseph found it hard to believe Mary because pregnancy cannot happen without sexual union of two people. Probably Joseph knew the prophecy in Isiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Emmanuel.” But Joseph could not believe that it could happen to his wife.

 

Patience of Joseph

If Joseph would accuse Mary of committing adultery, she would be exposed to shame and even be stoned to death based on her pregnancy out of wedlock. In case Mary was telling the truth, Joseph would be responsible for hurting an innocent person. So the only option for him was to divorce Mary privately by writing a bill of divorce (Deut. 24:1). However, he did not take this action immediately; but was only considering it.

 

Comparison with Joseph of the Old Testament

The name Joseph reminds us of the Joseph of the Old Testament. He was also a chaste and righteous man. The moral integrity of Joseph is presented in Genesis chapter 39 where he overcame sexual temptation from Potiphar’s wife even though he knew that she would give him suffering for not yielding to her. 

 

Joseph of the Old Testament could take revenge on his brothers or at least put them to public shame when they came in front of him in Egypt searching for food. Instead, he treated them well and told them, ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.” (Genesis 50: 20-21). Joseph in the New Testament is also a favorite son of God the Father who inherited the holiness and righteousness of his forefathers, especially Joseph of the Old Testament.

 

(20) Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.

 

Dream

The appearance of Angel Gabriel to Zechariah and Mary were in visions. But for Joseph, the message of the angel came in a dream. Biblical concept of vision and dream are different. Vision occurs when one is awake, while dream happens when the person is asleep. Some studies show that people always dream when they sleep. But remember only the dreams right before they awake or that makes them wake up. The dream of Joseph was so real and touching that he woke up and considered it as a divine message for him.

 

Bible gives importance to dreams and interpretation of dreams. Dreams were used for various purposes. Some times God used dreams to reveal prophecy. Like Joseph, the husband of Mary, Joseph of the Old Testament was also a dreamer. He was also gifted with interpretation of dreams. His dream of his brothers bowing down to him came true. His interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream saved Egypt and his family from seven years of famine. The dream of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and its interpretation by Prophet Daniel came true in the history.  Gideon was encouraged for winning the war in a dream. (Judges 7:5).

 

Dreams were also used in the Bible to give warning from dangers. The Magi did not return to King Herod because God warned them in a dream. (Mathew 2:12). God warned Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt for saving the life of Infant Jesus. (Mathew 2:13). Another message through dream brought Joseph back to Nazareth. (Mathew 2:19-22) These dreams were special and different from ordinary dreams.

 

Angel of the Lord

The name of the angel is not specified in Joseph’s dreams. Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament is often a representative of God or God Himself to communicate with a human being. Some examples of the Angel of the Lord’s appearance are to Hagar (Gen. 16:7-14), to Abraham and Sarah at Mamre (Gen. 18:1), to Abraham on Mount Moriah (Gen. 22:11-12, 22:15), to Jacob (Gen. 31:11, 32:25), to Moses (Exodus 3:2), to Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15), to Gideon (Judges 6:22), and to Samson’s parents (Judges 13:21-22).

 

Son of David

The salutation of Joseph by the angel was attention getting: “Joseph, son of David.” Joseph was not a direct son of King David. Here angel acknowledges that Joseph was from the lineage of King David. Angel prepared Joseph for the next part of the message that the angel was going to convey. Israelites were expecting a Messiah who would be a descendant of King David because of God’s covenant with him (2 Samuel 7:12-16). So Joseph also had a share in the genealogy of the Messiah as his legal father.

 

 “Son of David” was used for Jesus several times by people who were seeking his mercy.  For example, a Canaanite woman called Jesus, “Lord, Son of David” while asking him to cure her daughter who was tormented by a demon. (Mathew 15:22). Two blind men requesting healing from Jesus also called him, “Lord, Son of David.” (Matthew 20:30). In these cases, they were acknowledging Jesus as their savior and using the term Lord and the Messianic title “Son of David.” The usage of “son of David” by the angel to Joseph is not the messianic title but only meant that God sees his ancestral connection with David, from whose line the deliverer would come. Notice the difference in the use by translators: S is capital when “Son of David” is used for Jesus and s is small letter when it is used for Joseph.

 

Do not be afraid

Some fathers of the church like Sts. Thomas Aquinas, Bernard, Basil and Ephraim interpret that Joseph was thinking of divorcing Mary out of “reverential fear.” Mary had told Joseph of her vision and message of Angel Gabriel and what happened afterwards. Joseph trusted the narration of Mary and felt himself unworthy to be the husband of Mary and foster father of her divine son. So Angel of the Lord is assuring Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.

 

Take Mary into your home

According to the Jewish custom of marriage, the final stage of wedding was when the bridegroom, who was also called husband, would come to the home of the bride and take her to his home. So the angel was assuring Joseph that he could trust Mary and take her home as his wife.

 

Role of the Holy Spirit

Work of the Holy Spirit is specified in the creation account in the book of Genesis. “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” (Genesis 1:2). Psalm 104:30 says: “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.” God created everything with his Word (Jesus) and his Breath (Spirit). (Psalm 33:6). Angel informed Joseph that the same Spirit that created the world and the humans, will work in Mary in a special way. So Jesus was of divine origin while Mary remained virgin.

 

(21) She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

 

Joseph is not biological father of Jesus

Angel Gabriel told Zachariah: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” (Luke 1:13). This was different from what the Angel of the Lord said to Joseph: “She will bear a son” implying that this son was not from his sexual relation with Mary. So Joseph was not supposed to consummate his marriage with Mary.

 

Mary allowed Joseph to Name the child Jesus

The angel gave both Mary (Luke 1:31) and Joseph (Mathew 1:21) the right to name the child Jesus. However, it was Joseph who named Jesus as instructed by the angel. (Mathew 1:25). Thus Joseph acknowledged himself as the legal father, though not the biological father. According to the concept of the time, to name a child was to claim the child as one’s own. Jesus’s real father was God the Father and he became incarnate by the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit.

 

Comparison of Joshua and Jesus

Angel clarified the mission of Jesus in this world to Joseph. Jesus is the Greek word of Joshua which means “Yahweh saves.” Like Joshua of the Old Testament who led the Israelites through River Jordan to the promised land defeating the Canaanites, Jesus would save the people from their bondage of sin and would lead them through baptism to the lost Garden of Eden. So the deliverance promised through the redeemer was not from the Roman emperor, as the cotemporary Jewish leaders misunderstood of Messiah, but from a greater enemy who could prevent the people reaching heaven. According to Psalm 130:8, “he will redeem Israel from all its sins.”

 

(22) All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:

 

Mathew is here referring to Isiah the prophet in 7:14.

 

(23) “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”

 

“The virgin” (not “a virgin”) stands for a particular virgin that God had selected for this role. And that chosen virgin was Mary.

 

Emmanuel is more a title than a name

Though Prophet Isiah said in 7:14 that Jesus shall be named Emmanuel, Jesus was never called by that name. Again in Isiah 9:5 we read, “They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” These including “Emmanuel” were given not as literal names but as the title that specifies the nature of the Messiah.

 

(24) When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

 

A non-consummated marriage

Unlike Zechariah or Mary, Joseph did not ask any clarification to the angel. Dream is not in our control. Joseph believed in this dream because he was convinced that it was unlike a regular dream. He was happy that he received this clarity from God and gladly accepted Mary and the child. Joseph legally married Mary by taking her to his home as the Angel of the Lord had commanded and their marriage was not consummated.

 

The special fatherhood of Joseph

Joseph became the father of Jesus not by adoption but by his marriage to Mary, the mother of Jesus. But unlike other stepsons, Jesus had no human father. That made Joseph’s relationship with Jesus more intimate. Besides, Joseph knew that he was protecting and nurturing the God incarnate who created him and has been protecting him.

 

Message:

 

1.     Non-judgmental approach of Joseph towards Mary.

Joseph was upset that his betrothed “wife” was pregnant. He was not sure whether Mary was innocent or not, though she might have explained to him her vision of Angel Gabriel. Joseph could be furious at Mary and had every right to present her for trial and capital punishment of stoning to death. However, he took a non-judgmental approach to Mary. She might be innocent and as a righteous man, Joseph did not want to put her to shame or punishment. This must be a great lesson for us.

 

Often times we jump into judging others or taking action against them. Even if we cannot comprehend the view of others, let us try to understand them from their position or leave it to the judgement of God.

 

2.     Patience of Joseph to resolve the issue.

Though Joseph was considering a private divorce from Mary, he took time pondering on it. An immediate reaction from Joseph could have made Mary’s life miserable, and missed his vocation as foster father of the Messiah. Like the patriarchs of the Old Testament, Joseph allowed time during his time of trial. God intervened and resolved the issue through a dream. “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in mercy.” (Psalm 145:8). Joseph was also in the same line in his handling of the issue with Mary.

 

Timely action is good in emergency situations. However, when there is a conflict within oneself or in the relationship with others, patience and tolerance for a while with trust in God will help us for a better solution. Reasonable buying of time can be beneficial to get help from God or from others to resolve the issues.

 

3.     Joseph’s cooperation with the will of God.

Joseph is a silent character in the Bible. We do not hear him speak. He did not say a word to the angel, probably because the angel spoke to him in a dream. When Jesus was lost and found at the age of 12 in the Temple, Joseph did not say a word. It was Mary who spoke to Jesus. Though Joseph did not express his willingness to cooperate like Mary did, he wholeheartedly took up all the responsibilities of his mission. He was not honored as the foster father of the Savior while he was alive because Jesus had not become popular before Joseph’s death. The only honor Joseph had was that he died at the presence of his legal son and Messiah Jesus, and his wife and co-redeemer Mary.

 

As the disciples of Jesus, we are called to cooperate with Jesus and do the will of God in our lives. More than our words, our attitude, humble service, and willingness to take up the hardships of life for the family and for the church are important.

 

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