When asked how many children we have, my wife’s practiced response is “we raised seven.” That is because we have been parents in a variety of forms: two biological children, three adopted children, numerous foster children (two of whom we helped raise after they returned to their mother), and various friends of our children who look to us as extra parents. To raise a child is to become that child’s parent, regardless of what biology or the courts say. That is why it is only fair to call Joseph Jesus’ father, regardless of your view on the virgin birth.
Forgetting that the accepted understanding of human biology at the time Matthew wrote his gospel was that the woman was akin to the soil in which the seed was planted, contributing nothing to the child other than being host; and ignoring the culturally accepted mythology that rulers were often the offspring of the gods, we too often focus on the scientifically untenable claim that Jesus had no biological father. That misplaced concern takes our focus off of one of the points that surely was being made by Matthew, Joseph was between a rock and hard place and yet made the most compassionate and ultimately righteous decisions that he could.
By the time Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he was likely already beginning to be the target of shaming. It was the normal marriage practice to legalize the marriage (which would have been arranged between their families) and then establish the household. So a couple would be legally married for some time before the marriage would be consummated in the new home (this is why betrothed is a better translation than engaged to describe Joseph and Mary at this point). During this time, the wife would continuing living among the women of her family. Since there is a communal element to the ritual washing required of Jewish women around their menstruation, there would likely have been some murmuring about not seeing Mary at the baths in a while. In the strict patriarchal system of that time, Joseph is the one who holds the cards. The honor code of his world requires that he not take what properly belongs to another. So even seeing the child as belonging to God leaves Joseph in a bind. Since he would be expected to publicly display the “tokens of virginity” on his wedding night (it is in the Bible, or I wouldn’t bring it up: Deuteronomy 22:13-21), he knows he will face shame and the accompanying shunning unless he acts now. He could claim his rights according to Numbers 5:11-31 and return Mary to her father, but that would expose her to the risk of death. So thinking that there is a man who is responsible, Joseph decides the the more compassionate path is to quietly divorce Mary, giving the true father of the child a chance to accept responsibility and marry Mary.
But then something happens, Joseph comes to believe that God had a role in bringing life into Mary’s womb. It is hard to disagree that there is a touch of the miraculous in every pregnancy. For Joseph, the miracle demanded that he accept the social cost and become a father. Keeping Mary as his wife, agreeing to raise a child that wasn’t his, makes Joseph a true father. He doesn’t make excuses or hide behind the law. He digs deep into compassion to find that justice is not about retribution but restoration. He commits to the restoration of love and fairness by becoming a devoted father and husband even when he didn’t have to.
The next time someone wrongs you, the next time you are “well within your rights,” the next time you want to hurt others in response to your pain…remember Joseph, the forgotten father.
Rev. Ian Lynch is pastor of Old South UCC in Kirtland, Ohio, where Darkwood Brew is used as a tool for ministry as church beyond walls. He has a YouTube channel called Bible Bytes, short video commentaries on the scripture lesson for the week.