The Jesus Creed 8 – Joseph: The Story of Reputation

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The one for this chapter is: Matthew 1:18-25.

This chapter adds depth to our understanding of the social and cultural context. Joseph is a ‘righteous man.’ That is, he is tsadiq.

This is the reputation of anyone who studies, learns, and observes the Torah scrupulously. In Joseph’s world, that means he recites and lives the Shema daily, that he follows the food laws, that he supports the synagogue, and that he regularly celebrates the high holy days in Jerusalem. Joseph is proud of his reputation. In Joseph’s world there are no reputations more desirable than tsadiq — unless you are a priest (unusual), a prophet (rare), or the Messiah (very rare).

I will note that this perception and understanding of Joseph lends credence to the Orthodox memory of Joseph as an older, widowed man chosen to wed Mary. I’m somewhat familiar with the way cultures who name such men function and it’s unlikely that a young man just entering adulthood would have been seen and recognized as tsadiq. I’m not sure that Joseph’s age matters all that much, but this cultural lens does bolster the Orthodox story of Joseph.

That provides the depth to understand Joseph’s dilemma when he hears that Mary is pregnant. If he continues his association with her, it will cost him his place among the tsadiqim. He will become Am ha-aretz, one of those who does not observe the Torah. So what does he do? He consults the Torah. Here are the options Torah would have given him.

She has either been seduced or raped. If she has been seduced, the Torah says that both Mary and her seducer are to be stoned to death. If she has been raped, the rapist is to be put to death. But, if no one confesses, the Torah says that Mary is to drink the ‘waters of bitterness.’ If she dies from the water, she is guilty; if she doesn’t die, she is innocent. Or, from yet another part of the Torah Joseph could have consulted, her parents could produce ‘tokens of virginity,’ which needs no explanation.

In the midst of this, Joseph hears Mary’s story. She says that she has not been seduced or raped, but that the child is the result of a miracle. God has done this.

Joseph is on the horns of a dilemma. He would do anything to follow Torah. But what if Mary is telling the truth? Would God do something like this? Should he preserve his reputation? Or love Mary and take her as his wife? This is the dilemma the Jesus Creed often creates.

With all that tension swirling, Joseph opts to quietly preserve his reputation with a ‘private‘ divorce. And then an angel tells him not to fear. Don’t fear the loss of reputation. Don’t fear the future. Mary is telling the truth. He knows it’s unlikely that anyone will believe his story of angelic visitation, so he must decide. Surrender to God (that sacred love thing, remember — ALL) and ruin his reputation in the public square or protect his reputation by ignoring God. We all know how Joseph chose. “He did as he was told.”

Joseph is then legally tied to two people with sullied reputations. “Mary is perceived as an adulteress (a na’ap) and Jesus is considered an illegitimate child (a mamzer). … Joseph is no longer a tsadiq. Instead, he is husband of Mary and the (legal) father of Jesus.”

His next thought is key. “The first story heard around the table of Jesus is that identity is more important than reputation. Joseph learns that who he is before God (his identity) is more important than who he is in the circle of his pious friends (his reputation).” And that’s a hard lesson for any of us to truly learn. Yet until we do, we can hardly be said to love God at all. For God chooses to lose his reputation when he provides for his Son to have two parents with bad reputations. And then he does it even more thoroughly in a scandalous and thoroughly disreputable death as a common criminal on a cross.

God asks us to sacrifice everything to find our identity in him. But it’s no less than he’s already done.

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