An angel made me do it

Advent 4 – 2013

Matthew 1:18-25

Marian Free

 In the name of God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Amen.

 There is a wonderful line in the mini-series of “Pride and Prejudice” when the overly religious and moralistic Mary states – in response to Lydia’s elopement: “As difficult as this situation is, it is a useful reminder to us that a woman’s virtue, once lost, is irretrievable.”  She reflects a common view. Her cousin, Mr Collins has already commented something to the effect that the situation would not have been as bad had Lydia been dead. All the blame, all the responsibility for her loss of virtue fall on her. Mr Wickham, the man who has persuaded Lydia to run away with him, will have a reputation of not being a “respectable man”, but it is Lydia and her family that will bear the censure and the social isolation that will result from her reckless behaviour. No one will want to socialise with the family after this and the four other sisters will now be tainted by association. As Elizabeth says: “She is ruined, and her family must share in her shame and disgrace.” Sexual indiscretion on the part of the woman seems to have been seen as something that was contagious. It was considered to be so morally wrong that no one would want to be seen to be condoning it by maintaining a friendship with the family.

These sorts of attitudes regarding chastity make Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s pregnancy quite extraordinary. In many cultures even today, a woman who shames her family or her husband can be cast out of that society or even worse, put to death. A respectable man would want nothing to do with her and would certainly not want to raise someone else’s child as if he or she were his own.

So far as we can tell, in the first century, as in some places today, young people were engaged at a very young age. They didn’t necessarily live together and were not actually married until they were older. This seems to have been the case with Mary and Joseph. When Mary fell pregnant she and Joseph were not married and not living together. You can imagine his shock and disappointment when he discovered that Mary had become pregnant to someone else. In the normal course of events he could have caused a commotion. Mary’s pregnancy would have been a source of great humiliation, shame and embarrassment to him. In normal circumstances, he would want nothing more to do with her, he would not want to be associated with someone who was not chaste and he almost certainly would not want to raise someone else’s child – especially in a culture in which a son was required to carry on the family name.

Mary’s parents have let him down. They have not kept their side of the bargain that would have been to ensure Mary’s chastity – any commitments they made with regard to the betrothal have been broken. Now that Mary is pregnant, she is “spoiled goods”. Joseph is within his rights to ask for compensation and not to marry her.

However, he resolves not to make a fuss, to demand recompense or to make an example of Mary. Instead he decides “to dismiss her quietly” and to release her and her parents from any arrangement they have made. Perhaps, as tradition has it, Joseph is an old man who with the wisdom of age understands why a young woman might choose someone else or perhaps he just likes to keep to himself and does not want to draw attention to the situation. Whatever the reason, Joseph presumably thinks that this episode in his life has been dealt with and put behind him. Not so – God, in the form of an angel intervenes with an outrageously unbelievable story. “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.”

Assuming the account to have some truth in it, Joseph is asked to make a huge turn around. He has to reverse his decision, he has to come to terms with marrying Mary, he has to accept and raise a child that is not his own, he has to confront the fact that his neighbours may view him with contempt and that his only explanation for behaviour which will make no sense at all to those around him – will be: “An angel made me do it”.

Unfortunately, we cannot go back in time, so can only guess at the scenario and wonder how much license the author of Matthew has taken with the story. It is possible, as Matthew suggests, that Joseph was held in such esteem in the community that his behaviour would have been seen as further evidence of his goodness and generosity. He is protecting a young woman from life-long isolation and shame. All the same, we cannot underestimate what a huge decision this would be for Joseph and risks he was taking in marrying a woman who was already pregnant. His own moral codes would be called into question and his social standing compromised as a result.

It is possible that the culture of the time was more open to God speaking to people in dreams or to angels appearing apparently out of nowhere with messages that turn a person’s life upside down. Even so, few, I imagine would believe that God was asking Joseph to do something that was so socially unacceptable. In effect, Joseph would have had to convince his family and friends to accept that God was asking him to do something that would compromise his (and God’s) moral standards and to behave in a way that was contrary to the principles and values that his community held in common. Joseph had to be absolutely convinced that he message that he had dreamt did indeed come from God, absolutely sure that the risks he was taking were worth the end result and that going against his own moral code was, in this instance, the right thing to do.

Some people make the mistake of confusing Christianity with morality. Being a Christian, they believe, has to do with being good (as opposed to being in union with God). This allows them to make moral judgments and to censure those who do not live up to their particular set of standards. The reality, as we know, is much more complex. When we strip away the sentimentality from our Christmas stories we find a different point of view. Beneath the romantic story of angels and dreams and of Mary and Joseph and the baby, we discover that God is not bound by our ideas of right and wrong or by our set of moral principles. The central characters of the Christmas story are a woman who has become pregnant out-of-wedlock and a man who is prepared to risk his own character and to ignore the accepted morality of first century Palestine. Each, in their different ways, respond to an angel who asks them to behave in ways contrary to the social mores of their time and to act in ways that will expose them to derision and disdain. Yet their relationship with God is such that they are able to place their trust completely in God, to put their own hesitations behind them and to take risks that make them vulnerable to censure and to social exclusion to ensure that God’s purpose can become a reality.

The example of Mary and Joseph is not an excuse for us to ignore moral values or cultural norms, but it is a reminder to us that we should build our relationship with God such that not only do we know and do what is right and proper, but that we also know when we are called to step beyond cultural boundaries and social constraints so that God’s presence might be known in the world.

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