On Scripture: #firstcenturyproblems (Matthew 1:18-25)
With just a few days to go before Christmas, many Americans will be rushing around completing their Christmas preparations: doing their last minute shopping, finalizing travel plans, figuring out how to deal with awkward family dynamics. In many cases, they will be faced with what is popularly known as #firstworldproblems — problems of inconvenience of a privileged and affluent people: delayed flights, out-of-stock gift items, spotty cell phone coverage.
At the same time, many people, hidden amidst the consumer celebration that Christmas has become, will be struggling just to find their next meal, shelter, community, and hope.
Striking census bureau statistics released earlier this year paint a picture of an expanding American underclass, with 15% of Americans living at or below the poverty-line, 23% of children (the highest percentage of poor by age) living in poverty, and the evaporation of the American middle class.
On the one hand, at this time of year, our society is more aware of the poor. Holiday food collections, toy and clothing drives abound, as does the ubiquitous ringing of Salvation Army bells. And yet, in many ways the plight of the poor is more hidden by the bright lights and rush of the season.
Pope Francis recently drew attention to the plight of the poor when he prayed for them in the middle of Rome’s lavish shopping district, the Via Condotti. He prayed that "the cry of the poor may not leave us indifferent, the suffering of the sick and the one who is in need may not find us distracted, the solitude of the elderly and the fragility of children may move us….”
As Matthew 1:18-25 demonstrates, today’s poor are more likely to be struggling with #firstcenturyproblems than they are #firstworldproblems, and, in this, they find solidarity with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
Joseph, Being a Righteous Man
In Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, Joseph, not Mary, is the main character, and he is immediately faced with a dilemma. Mary, to whom he is betrothed, is pregnant. In the first century “betrothal” was a binding legal agreement that preceded the actual marriage. Thus, they were legally promised to one another, but not yet married. This period of betrothal could last as long as a year. Within this time Mary becomes pregnant, and according to custom Joseph ought to divorce her.
Matthew testifies to Joseph’s character, “being a righteous man,” that he did not want to expose Mary to more shame than both of them would experience with the news that she was pregnant.
But then Joseph is visited by an angel in a dream — the first of four dreams (1:20, 2:13, 2:19-20, 2:22) to Joseph that will define the first years of Jesus’ life — and receives the news that this child is the Son of God.
A Family on the Edge
Joseph and Mary would remain together. Undoubtedly they would both experience the shame of her condition. However, they had more practical and urgent concerns. They were not prepared to have a child, let alone the Son of God, nor all that was to transpire along with it.
Matthew’s account shows Joseph to be both a righteous and a practical man. One can easily imagine Joseph as an anxious new father, with all of the worries that come along with parenthood: caring for Mary, providing for her safety and comfort, caring for a newborn son. It would be challenging under the best of circumstances. However, in addition to all the typical parental concerns, they must endure the shame of their family situation. (If Joseph dared at all share his dream and the angel’s message, he might be thought to be crazy or having delusions of grandeur.) He had to host out-of-town guests — the magi — and then, having become the target of Herod and the Roman Empire, had to flee his ancestral home for Egypt, a foreign empire.
The birth of Jesus happens here against the backdrop what Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe in their book The First Christmas as a “tectonic clash of the kingdom of Rome verses the Kingdom of God” (59).
Jesus’ earliest days were lived on the religious, political, and economic margins of his time — marked by homelessness, immigration, and oppression. This fledgling holy family lived a fragile existence.
One can hear the echoes of Joseph’s concern for his family in the story of Glen and his daughter, Kelsi. Like many families, the great recession has hit them hard, and Glen has experienced extended unemployment. Like many, they have lived a marginal existence, residing in a family member’s foreclosed home, packing their things, so, as Glen says, “we can move whatever we’ve got to wherever we’re going.” One can easily image Joseph wondering the same thing — about what to take and what to leave behind for the journey to Egypt. And yet, both men possess great faith and hope. Glen reflects, “I think my faith has carried me” through separation, unemployment, depression, and a myriad of other challenges.
Which Means, “God is with us”
The angel tells Joseph that his son will be the fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah (7:14) “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”
It is to such people and in such circumstances that God chooses to be born. God is born to a lowly, persecuted, itinerant, and largely anonymous couple. Into a yet unformed family, into their insecurity, anxiety, and fears, Jesus is born.
And today the Son of God is born into our poverty. He is born among and to those in poverty: the poor, the hungry, the forgotten. Jesus is also born anew into the spiritual poverty of Empire, into our complacency, the inequality we perpetuate in our economic and political systems. Jesus is the light born into times of great darkness, coming to bring peace through justice rather than the sword.
It is this Jesus, Immanuel, who, later, at the outset of his public ministry will quote another passage from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
(Watch The Line in its entirety here.)
Reverend Keith Anderson serves as pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church near Philadelphia and is co-author with Elizabeth Drescher of Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012).