19 March 2013

Matthew 1:18-25

"Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.'" (vv. 19-20)


Today is the feast day of Joseph of Nazareth, the husband of Mary.

This story takes place during the couple's betrothal. Mary may well have been only in her early teens, and Joseph perhaps a few years older. In first-century Palestine, betrothal was a serious business - a formal contract between the parents of the husband and the wife-to-be. It comprised the formal, contractual elements of a marriage, but was not supposed to include the sexual relations.

There would then generally be about a year before the actual marriage took place, but infidelity was as serious as it would be between a couple actually married. The penalty for an unfaithful wife could be death by stoning, so this was no trivial matter.

Joseph is often seen as a semi-irrelevant add-on to the story. Mary is the mother, the obedient one, the one who is favoured by God. But this passage shows us Joseph's obedience. Verse 19 establishes him as a righteous man and as the passage progresses, we see what this means for his trust in God's plan. But also relevant is the way that the angel addresses him: "Joseph, son of David". Right from the opening of his Gospel, we see Matthew's concern to show Jesus as the Messiah, and this meant showing him to be firmly in the line of David, the ideal king. This is a large part of the point of the genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17), which traces Jesus' lineage back to David, crucially through Joseph's line. For Matthew, then, Joseph is as important in the birth narrative as is Mary. Jesus' messianic identity comes both through his conception "from the Holy Spirit" (vv. 18, 20) and through his Davidic descent.

Being the Messiah also explains the choice of Jesus' name, which is the Greek form of Joshua, meaning 'God saves'. It is further emphasised by the quotation from Isaiah 7:14, which in the Hebrew speaks of a young woman conceiving. The Greek translations of the Scriptures tended to interpret this 'young woman' as a virgin, and it became understood as a messianic prophecy.

To Ponder

  • Joseph's righteousness is seen in the tension between obedience to the law, compassion for Mary and trust in God. In your attempts to be 'righteous' (or in a good place with God), how do you balance attention to Scripture, to the needs of others, and to the prompting of the Holy Spirit?
  • Joseph's part in the story is often overlooked. Whose important contributions to the life of the church or to your community are undervalued, and whose voices are not adequately heard? What can you do to help change that?

Bible notes author

The Revd Catrin Harland

Catrin Harland is the Methodist chaplain to the University of Sheffield, where she spends her time discussing life and faith with students and staff, aided by coffee and cake. She is passionate about equipping young adults to discover and live out their calling in the Church and the world.