Thursday, December 27, 2007

Homily: "Did Joseph Get a Raw Deal?" (Delivered 12-24-07)


The Gospel According to Matthew 1:18-25
The Gospel According to Matthew 2:10-15, 19-21


“Joseph got a raw deal.” At least that is how one member of this church sees it. For him, Mary seems to get all the glory and accolades. And Joseph? Well, Joseph gets a raw deal. Allow me to elaborate on how this man views Joseph. To him, Joseph is a praiseworthy figure. He is more trusting and more loyal than many men might be under similar circumstances. He also has a self-denying, self-sacrificing quality to him, almost to the point of being self-less. And, of course, we know that the child he raises as his own son turns out pretty well. Can a father get some credit? The bottom line seems to indicate that Joseph is a nice guy, and we all know that nice guys finish last.

Where am I going this evening? I don’t want to make this a battle of the genders. That is not what this is about. I merely want to say that Joseph gets overlooked, and so tonight I thought we would give him his moment in the sun. So, let’s begin the basics of the story.

In the four gospels, Mark and John make virtually no mention of the parents of Jesus. Matthew, from which we’ve just read, contains a birth narrative as does the Gospel of Luke, however there is even less about Joseph in Luke’s Gospel than in Matthew. So, those 15 verses from Matthew which we read earlier are about all we know about Joseph. But those 15 verses are enough to allow us to make some judgments.

First, we are told that Joseph is a descendent of the royal lineage of King David, but he seemed not to inherit the traits of David’s son, Solomon, if you get my drift. On Christmas Eve I don’t want to spend too long rehashing matters of private human intimacy, just to say that poor Joseph is emasculated in the story, what with hanging around to raise a child who is not his.

Joseph’s emasculation goes deeper than just the fact the Mary’s child is not his. Joseph’s failure to secure a place at the inn is a sign of his impotency. We can imagine Mary saying, “Hey Joe, go get us a room at the inn.” And Joseph comes back empty-handed.

Then there is the whole matter of the scene that follows the birth itself, a scene that is practically reminiscent of a circus. We should have this image – Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in the stable, with maybe some cows and sheep to fill in the margins. Instead get a parade: Shepherds, wise-men, Kings, angels, gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Poor Joseph gets pushed out of the picture.

I’ve always had a little difficulty identifying Joseph in crèches and nativity scenes. You’ve got all these figurines of bearded wise-men, shepherds with head pieces, and I find myself having to take a second or third take to figure out which figurine is Joseph. Who is the father?

The good news is that it does get better. The story tells us that the earliest years of their family life together involve them fleeing as refugees to Egypt where they live in exile only to return later once things have calmed down following the death of Herod. Joseph, the text implies, displays competency leading his family to a new land and making the most out of life in exile. However, upon returning and settling down in Nazareth, Jesus’ parents suddenly drop out of the story entirely and Jesus goes off to get baptized by John the Baptist.

That’s the story. We all know how for Mary and Joseph in the church tradition. Mary becomes a celebrated figure within the Christian Church, literally elevated to glorious (and sometimes divine) levels of adoration and devotion. A cult of the Virgin Mary, the Madonna, thrives in the popular practice of Catholicism. Mary is petitioned directly in prayers. “Hail Mary, full of grace.” Joseph does get made a saint, but he is clearly playing second fiddle. So, did Joseph get a raw deal? (The city of St. Joseph, Missouri is named for him, so at least he has that going for him.)

It turns out whether Joseph got a raw deal or not is not really the question I am so keen on asking this evening. Has anyone ever felt like just a bystander as miracles unfold around them? Has anyone ever felt as though things – important things, meaningful things, earth-shattering things – were going on around them, but that your role was more witness than participant?

I tend to see Joseph this way. There is this wild party taking place – Mary is giving birth, farm animals are causing a ruckus, a bunch of shepherds show up, a bunch of Kings and wise men show up with groovy gifts, a star lights the whole scene, a multitude of angels are blasting away on trumpets… and Joseph is just a wallflower standing in a corner.

I can certainly imagine Joseph’s ego shouting: “Hello? What about me? Don’t forget about me? I am betrothed to Mary after all? I’m going to be the father to this child you are all getting so excited about. What am I, chopped liver?” But, he doesn’t seem to have an assertive bone in his body. Instead, he just kind of stands there and smiles and wonders quietly to himself, when are all these people going to leave?

OK, so maybe this is not the most impressive religious insight I have ever delivered. But, I do wonder about Joseph’s place in all of this. I think I can relate to it sometimes. Things are happening, the world is changing, history is being made that is going to change the course of human events forever… and Joseph is just there watching it all go down.

I wracked my brain trying to think of contemporary examples where a son completely passes the legacy of the father. We are used to stories where a son tries to live up to the father’s brilliance, success, and greatness. The example I thought of that involves the son surpassing the father is Peyton Manning winning a Superbowl while his father Archie looked on. Take that and multiply it by about a million and you’ve got Joseph and Jesus.

What I am talking about isn’t jealousy. It isn’t the need for attention. Rather, it is about feeling like you have a place in the larger scheme of things. It is about feeling like you matter. It is about feeling like you have something to contribute to the world that’s worth a nickel.

And I imagine Joseph in that moment of Jesus’ birth feeling this profound ambivalence (or maybe even doubt and despair) about whether he has a place in the larger scheme of things.

But here is the amazing twist: central to Jesus’ ministry was demonstrating to people that they have a place in the larger scheme of things, that they matter. He would say things about the last being first. He would praise the widow’s mite, the Samaritan’s compassion, the basic hospitality of Mary (the sister of Martha.) “The least of these.” Jesus’ ministry took the “Josephs” who occupy the margins and corners and pulled them into the center of things.

And we’ve come around, full circle. Let us keep before us all those things that we do that matter. And let us recognize what we do matters. I know so many of you in this congregation give of your time and your energy so selflessly, whether it is given to our church, to boards and community organizations, to volunteer efforts. Let us not forget that what we do matters.

I hope that you leave here tonight with perhaps a newer appreciation for Joseph. Not some loser who doesn’t know how to make hotel reservations. Not some guy off on the fringes. Not someone written out of the story. Let’s bring him back to his spot in the midst of miracle and wonder. And, in doing this, let’s bring ourselves back to a place where we can be certain that what we do with our lives matters. It matters more than we can know.


Just hours after preaching this homily I received an email. The email asked if I was familiar with a painting by Carvaggio entitled, “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” In this painting, Joseph fills a very important role: he acts as a music stand for an angel. I think I was on the right track in my interpretation of Joseph...