Don’t be afraid

22 December 2013
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Advent 4A (RCL)
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Matthew’s infancy narrative differs greatly from Luke’s. While Luke’s narrative focuses almost exclusively on Mary, in Matthew’s account, Mary hardly plays a role: Joseph steps to the fore. Matthew’s infant Jesus recapitulates the history of Israel, and so it makes sense that Joseph the dreamer should have a starring role. Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, and God called Israel out of Egypt. Joseph takes the child and his mother to Egypt so that God again might call his son out of Egypt.

In Matthew’s Gospel, we aren’t given any details about Mary’s pregnancy, except that Joseph isn’t the father and it happens through the agency of the Holy Spirit (which could mean a lot of things). Mary is betrothed to Joseph (who in this instance is of the house of David). Before the home taking, Joseph discovers she is pregnant. He could have had her stoned, or at least held up for public shame, but he is a merciful man, as well as righteous, and wants to apply the law as mercifully as possible.

After deliberation, he decides to void the contract without any public show, to make things as easy for her as possible. At the point, the angel appears to Joseph (not to Mary) and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his spouse.

We rarely read the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, but if one bothers, we discover four women listed: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. Tamar, Rahab and Ruth were women who took their sexual destinies in their own hands (Tamar “played the harlot” with Judah because he refused to marry her to another of his sons, after her husband died; Rahab was a prostitute, Ruth slept with Boaz at the threshing floor). Bathsheba was raped by David. And then there is Mary. There seems to have been an early tradition unfavorable to Mary (in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is called “the son of Mary” — a huge insult). Matthew deals with the scandal in his genealogy. However it was that Mary got pregnant, she was in the company of other women God used for God’s purposes.

We often, like Joseph, want to apply the rules as mercifully as possible, but run the risk of not seeing what God has in store. The first thing the angel says to Joseph (the first thing any angel says to any human) is “Do not be afraid,” but in this context it is very specific: “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” God has other ideas than the application of the rules.

Fear keeps us from seeing God at work in the world. The law, which would have allowed Joseph to have Mary stoned, rather than creating a just community, allows us to make distinctions between one and another, rather than hearing the stories of the other. Those outside the law need ask little of our time or attention. Joseph is told to take Mary into her home and to name her son Yeshua, for he will save the people from their sins — precisely the sins of using the law to make distinctions.

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