Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (22 December 2019)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife (Matthew 1:18-24 – NRSV).
A similar passage is found in Luke 1:2-7. However, Luke focuses on Mary whilst Matthew focuses on Joseph.
One commentator makes the following observation concerning this passage in Matthew: “To appreciate this birth-story one must first have some basic information about Jewish marriage laws and customs, divine communication through angels and dreams, the announcement-of-birth pattern, and the use of biblical quotations in Matthew’s Gospel” (Daniel J Harrington, SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 36). In other words there is nothing straightforward about this text. Fundamentalists beware!
In Jewish life of Jesus’ day, marriage was seen as a civil contract rather than a religious covenant or “sacrament”. Engagement or betrothal was taken very seriously indeed, as is indicated in Deuteronomy 20:7: “Has anyone become engaged to a woman but not yet married her? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another marry her.” And again in Deuteronomy 22: 23-24: “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”
Rabbinic custom set the minimum age at which one could get married at thirteen for the male and twelve for the female. The marriage would be arranged by the elders of the families.
The engagement usually took place at the home of the bride and there might by a year or more before the actual wedding took place. Thus Matthew says Joseph and Mary were engaged but not yet wed. Mary’s pregnancy raises the specter of Deuteronomy 22: 23-24 coming into play – see above.
before they lived together: Matthew is telling us that Jesus is, according to Jewish custom, the legal father of Jesus. But he also makes it clear that he is not the biological father.
from the Holy Spirit: The Greek word is pneumatos from pneuma meaning literally “wind” or “spirit”. The Hebrew word ruah is generally translated as “spirit” – see for example Genesis 1:1-2: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” See also Genesis 6:3, Psalm 104:30 and Job 33:4. Ruah – meaning either wind or breath or spirit – is generally used in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures when speaking of the Spirit of God. In Greek the word becomes pneuma and in Latin spiritus. Matthew is saying that Jesus’ conception is the result of the direct creating action of God’s ruah.
a righteous man: The Greek word dikaios may also be translated “just”. Both “righteous” and “just” most obviously suggest a Jew who is faithful to Torah. Actually, the concept is much richer than that. Old Testament scholar, Gerhard von Rad, writes: “There is absolutely no concept in the Old Testament with so central a significance for all the relationships of human life as that of sdq (pronounced ‘tsadaq’). It is the standard not only for our relationship to God, but also for our relationships to our fellows, reaching right down to the most petty wranglings – indeed, it is even the standard for our relationship to the animals and to our natural environment. Sdq can be described, without more ado, as the highest value in life, that upon which all life rests when it is properly ordered. .... its content seemed to be given by the translation in the Vulgate (justitia) .... a man’s proper conduct over against an absolute ethical norm, a legality which derives its norm from the absolute idea of justice. From this absolute norm, it was supposed, issued absolute demands and absolute claims. In social respects justice so understood watches with complete impartiality over these claims and takes care that each man gets his own (justitia distributiva). Thus, the only remaining question was, what is the norm that the Old Testament presupposes? .... As we now see, the mistake lay in seeking and presupposing an absolute ideal ethical norm, since ancient Israel did not in fact measure a line of conduct or an act by an ideal norm, but by the specific relationship in which the partner had at the time to prove himself true. ‘Every relationship brings with it certain claims upon conduct, and the satisfaction of these claims, which issue from the relationship and in which alone the relationship can persist, is described by our term sdq.’ The way in which it is used shows that ‘sdq is out and out a term denoting relationship, and that it does this by referring to a real relationship between two parties .... and not to the relationship of an object under consideration to an idea. .... the just man is the one who measures up to the particular claims this relationship lays upon him’” (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Volume One, translated D M G Stalker, Oliver and Boyd, 1957/1973, 370-73).
A friend of mine told me a story about her father. Her father was a butcher. One day, when my friend was a small girl, she travelled with her father to a property to buy some cattle. Her father asked the man how much he wanted for the cattle. The man said, “How about £10 a head?” My friend recalls her father saying in reply, “How about I give you £12 a head”. They settled on that. Going home, my friend said, “Dad why did you give him £12 when he only asked for £10?” Her father replied, “He didn’t know what they were worth darling”. It is no surprise that my friend has lived out her days under the patronage of St Joseph – as a member of the Sisters of St Joseph – for he too was a just man.
The Old Testament scholar, Gerhard von Rad, writes of the ancient Jewish understanding of justice (Hebrew: sdq – pronounced ‘tsadaq’): “There is absolutely no concept in the Old Testament with so central a significance for all the relationships of human life as that of sdq. It is the standard not only for our relationship to God, but also for our relationships to our fellows .... indeed, it is even the standard for our relationship to the animals and to our natural environment. Sdq can be described, without more ado, as the highest value in life, that upon which all life rests when it is properly ordered” (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Volume One, translated D M G Stalker, Oliver and Boyd, 1957/1973, 370).
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 1:18-24 – we hear the simple statement of how Jesus began his journey with us: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 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 ....’” Could the Father have chosen a better earthly father for Jesus?
Pope St John Paul II, in June 2009, wrote in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (“On integral human development in charity and truth”): “(Justice) prompts us to give the other what is .... due to them by reason of their being ....” (Pope St John Paul II, Caritas in Veritate, #6. Emphasis added.). Justice cuts through the thicket of unreality – prejudice, anxiety, fear, pretences, assumptions, expectations etc – that so easily separate us from each other. Our very beings have basic rights. Existence, not states or other individuals, confers these rights. Others must honour those rights. People who are just, exemplify this.
The just man Joseph is every bit as much a herald of the Messiah as John the Baptist is.