No minor characters (Mother Beth)
In the seasons of Advent and Christmas, the Blessed Virgin Mary gets plenty of good press, but Joseph more often than not is overlooked and treated as a minor character. But today's reading from Matthew reminds us that Joseph was someone with an important role to play in God's plan.
At the beginning of this Gospel, Joseph is about to get married. Many marriages in those days were arranged by parents, and the system had three steps. First the engagement period, beginning in childhood. Then betrothal, which took place when the children had come of age -- about 13 or so -- as a kind of ratification of the contract made by the parents. At this point either the girl or the boy could opt out of the agreement. But if they chose to go ahead, they were then betrothed, that is, in the eyes of the law, legally bound together. Betrothal was serious enough that it could only be undone by divorce. After one year of betrothal, the third step took place -- the marriage itself.
In today's Gospel we see that Joseph and Mary were at step two -- they were betrothed, that is, legally linked, but not yet living together. The arrangements for the wedding were doubtless underway: the rabbi was ready, the guests invited, the party planned. Like most husbands to be, I imagine Joseph was nervous but happy.
Yet his hopes are dashed when he discovers a great scandal: his fiancee is already pregnant. Matthew the Gospel writer tells us that the child in Mary’s womb is from the Holy Spirit, but at the beginning of the text Joseph has no idea of that. He naturally thinks Mary has been unfaithful. We don't know how he found out. But surely Joseph, like anybody would, felt wounded and angry. It was not just the shame and humiliation this would bring on him and his family; it was also the sense of betrayal. Perhaps you understand, if you have ever had a person you cared for do something not just hurtful, but so out of character that you began to say: did I ever know him at all?
Joseph is expected, in all legal systems of that time, Greek, Jewish, and Roman, to divorce Mary for her infidelity. But because he is, Matthew tells us, a righteous, principled man, he chooses at least to do that privately. In the presence of two witnesses, he will simply write out a paper cancelling the betrothal and present it to her. This is the kind of thing a kind and principled person would do – play within the rules, but cause as little pain as possible.
On the night he makes this decision, however, he has a dream. And in his dream an angel tells him, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus -- for he will save his people from their sins." And Joseph, at this point, shows us that he is something more than kind or honest or good in the way we think of those things. He shows us that he is someone who has come to be able to recognize God at work, and to take action based on that. Someone who has learned to believe that God’s will, whether or not you understand it all, supersedes the customs and expectations of your time and your surroundings. How does Joseph show us that? By obeying.
There is almost certainly a cost for him in terms of respectability and being considered a good and principled person. But God’s call is more important to him than being considered a good and principled person. So he obeys and goes ahead with the marriage. He says yes.
Now, this yes said to God by Joseph (and of course the yes said earlier by Mary) helped to bring about the most significant event in human history, the Word made flesh, God becoming human in Jesus. We know now that nothing more important ever happened, and that what God would do in Jesus forever changed what was even possible for human beings. But if you think it was obvious to Joseph at the time how significant this particular choice to not divorce his fiancée was, what it meant for the world and the future of humanity, think again.
Joseph didn't see the whole picture, and neither do we. Until the Kingdom arrives in its fullness at the end of time, the foretastes of it often slip into the world through the cracks opened by tiny, ordinary, human acts of obedience to God despite what others say. We don't get a full official briefing on all the implications; we just get to say yes or no right where we are, half the time without even fully realizing that's what we're doing.
But it’s those routine yeses and noes right where we are that bring us closer to God, or further away. Do you think Joseph would have been able to take the risk of going ahead with the marriage -- heck, even able to notice the angel in the first place -- if he hadn’t formed the habit of routinely saying yes to God? Routinely prioritizing God? You can't wait for the big choices; it's the little ones that seal the deal. If you daily live as if God were not real, you are daily chipping away at your ability to honor his reality when you’re in crisis. But if you daily make little choices that remind you that you do belong to God and that he is in charge of your life, you’ll be ready when the big choices come. A big yes comes naturally when you’ve already been saying little yeses the whole time.
Joseph is often overlooked. Minor character or not, he was important to God, and his becoming able to say yes when God asked something of him is important to us, the beneficiaries of God’s action in Jesus 2000 years down the road. After all, Joseph says no, and the whole deal is off. The Three Kings say no and leak their location to a murderous Herod, and the whole deal is off. John the Baptist says no and leaves the way unprepared, and the whole deal is off. How many others in the story, of whom we've never heard, had to say yes too? There weren’t really any minor characters.
And that includes you. If you consider yourself a minor character in God’s plans for Emmanuel Church or for Champaign-Urbana or for your personal networks of friends and colleagues, I beg to differ. Or if you think there is some other, more important story going on in your life that has more power than the Gospel to determine what role you play in life, I beg to differ with that even more. Without you ever knowing it, your smallest choice today may be the deciding factor in the new possibility God is hoping to give somebody else tonight. Your prayer for reconciliation may be the petition God is waiting for to change an intractable situation at your workplace. Your yes or no to whatever God is doing for and with you this morning in the readings, the liturgy, the sacrament of his body and blood, is more important than you will ever know.
In God’s eyes there are no minor characters. In God’s eyes, there are no unimportant people or unimportant actions. Though this holy child of Bethlehem who is about to be born, God offers you and me the chance to participate, by our most ordinary choices and our extraordinary ones too, in the most important thing that ever happened. To live our lives as what he has made us by grace -- characters in the greatest story ever told.
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