Lesson 7: Mary (Matthew 1:18–2:23)
If you grew up in a tightknit group, you know how gossip spreads. As Mary’s middle began to thicken, tongues would have wagged. “How far gone do you think she is?” “She and Joseph have been at it!”
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Mary and Joseph are bound in a marriage contract. Joseph knows that he and Mary had not been intimate and believes that Mary is pregnant by another man. Anger, hurt, shame, and blame may have upended Joseph and his family. Mary’s pregnancy was scandalous and would have affected many people.
In a congregation that I served, it was publicly known that several people, including a church officer, were having affairs. It was extremely painful for the couples and their extended families. Friends took sides. Friendships were dropped. Divorces ensued. One family left the church over the painful, sordid business.
We learn something of Joseph’s character in his reaction to Mary’s pregnancy. He can openly denounce her, bring the full extent of the law upon her, and have her stoned. Instead, Joseph chooses to dismiss her quietly. (To dismiss Mary is to divorce her since a marriage contract was legally binding.) Joseph is righteous; that is, in right relationship with God and neighbor. He does what is better for Mary.
Yet, God turns Joseph’s best action on its ear. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to take Mary as his wife because her child is of the creating, disrupting, surprising Spirit of God. We know Joseph is deeply attuned to God because he does as the angel says.
Joseph and Mary both trust God in ways we might find incomprehensible. Not knowing the full cost of their decisions, both listen, receive and abide by the message of God. These are moments of exquisite faith.
During an in-depth spiritual formation program, I got to know people from different Christian traditions and walks of life. One of these people was a doctor whose colleague stole her work and received a grant based on their plagiarism. For six months, she wrestled in prayer and conversation with us. Not only did the pain of the betrayal plague her, but she also grappled with how she should respond as a Christian. She, like Joseph, listened to God and went beyond what was right and just. She forgave; that is, she let go of what was due her: an apology, recognition of her work, and leadership of the study. She believed this decision was best for the patients, medical students and the hospital.
We need people who will listen deeply to God and who will pray for guidance over weeks or months or more. Our culture is focused on the individual’s rights, what is due to us, and what we believe we should have. We live in a cacophony of raised, strident voices who proclaim that we have the truth and life should be lived on our terms. Rarely do we listen to other perspectives, much less focus on how God might disrupt our notions of what is right and wrong.
Sometimes it takes an angel to divert or calm us. “Angel” in Greek means “messenger.” In the Bible, we see angels as messengers from God. Who is a messenger from God in your life or in your church who challenges notions of what is possible and what is just? Who calms you down so that you can examine a situation from a different point of view?
The angel tells Joseph that the child is to be named “Jesus,” which means “God saves.” The messenger then references a quote from Isaiah about naming a child “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us” (Matthew 1:18-25.). God continues to be with Joseph, Mary and the baby, telling Joseph in another dream to get out of Dodge as the murderous King Herod is on their trail (Matthew 2:13-18).
God is with us as we struggle with what it means to be faithful to God in the midst of family discord, troubled marriages, economic hardship, heartaches, racial tensions or global illness. Mary and Joseph do not take the easy way out in saying “yes” to God. Their consent makes life more difficult for them, as it can for us. But knowing that God is with us can bring us hope and courage, which we sorely need.
Rosalind Banbury lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is a pastor in the Presbytery of the James.
You can purchase the PW/Horizons Bible study book through the PC(USA) Church Store.