Adopting the Mess
The paternity test confirmed Joseph’s suspicion. Mary cheated. After leaving the divorce lawyer’s office, he headed for the carpentry shop, trying to deaden his thoughts by busing his hands. He sharpened his pencils to a nub, reorganized the bench planes and gouge chisels for the third time, and swept the earthen floor despite doing the same yesterday. But to little avail. There was no distraction from the decision to be made. Ask for the engagement ring back.
Exhausted from pacing and fretting past midnight, he was finally overcome by sleep, laying Joseph out on the wood pile. There, in a snoring slumber, ravaged by the moral dilemma of it all, a celestial messenger appeared behind his rapid eye movements. “Joe,” she said, “Fear not. The village gossip and ruin to your reputation won’t matter. Accept Mary as your bride with assurance. The Holy Spirit conceived the Messiah in her womb, a son to be named Jesus.”
The morning after the annunciation, convinced his dream was more real than reality, Joseph woke up to his divine responsibility and did as the angel instructed. While he goes on to have no speaking role in the entire Gospel and disappears altogether by chapter two, what makes Joseph a righteous man?
Matthew 1:18-25 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, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
He was obedient.
He didn’t dismiss his dream.
He was righteous for unrighteous ignoring the Law.
In 1492, coming ashore in the modern-day Dominican Republic, Christopher Columbus said this was “the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen.” 1 His opinion may have changed 500 years after visiting the town dump south of Puerto Plata. It was a mountain of refuse: plastic jugs by the millions, plundered washing machines, tattered knock-off American clothes, and mounds of rotting food tossed out by the tourists resorting nearby. As the garbage trucks arrived, frantic Dominicans and indentured Haitians rushed each drop-off, knifing through the plastic bags for their livelihood. That’s where Jana and Bob, missionaries from the States, found him. The child was deaf and blind, his black body contorted from the disability. His parents, subsisting a few feet away in a lashed-together hovel of discarded driftwood and rusted tin, could no longer provide. They asked the foreigners to take their son and care for him back at their retreat center. And that’s where our group from Asheville met him. Nearly paralyzed, he spent most of his time in an open-air crib where his guttural petitions echoed through the compound, his darting eyes searched for the tropical light, and his body lurched in the direction of human contact. We gathered at his railing, where Jana welcomed us to Crossroads Ministries and said, “I’d like you to meet my son. His name is Immanuel.”
When Joseph finally roused, he had a pile of reasons to throw away his heavenly charge. Just do what the Good Book says in Deuteronomy 22:21. If your fiancé is unfaithful, the offense warrants death. My work as a builder follows the ruler; two cubits plus two cubits equals the height of a wall. But the math of this ineffable mystery doesn’t square. The church is an ideal place to hide from God. Feign the motions of faith as a protectant to ensure the sacred remains at a distance. And most men walk out in this situation. Not my fault, not my problem, not my responsibility.
But not the man with sawdust in his beard from Nazareth. Despite a vow broken, a trust ruptured, a name disgraced, a business shuttered, a future rescinded, he still steps forward to step up and say, “Yes, I will.” “Joseph,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, “… owns the mess- he legitimates it- and the mess becomes the place where the Messiah is born.” 2 The holy father is a righteous man because he, with boldness and bravery, actively choose to parent someone else’s scandal.
1 Christopher Columbus, diary entry, Oct. 12, 1492.
2 Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Boston: Cowley, 1995) 157.
3 Child Welfare Information Gateway, Trends in U.S. Adoptions: 2008-2012. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.