Stand Up and be Counted
Updated: Dec 21, 2022
As you may know, the Gospels were not written for the purpose of teaching history but rather to teach faith lessons using stories from their history. And that’s particularly true of the passage from Matthew’s Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Advent [cf. Matthew 1:18-24]. In this passage, Matthew gives us a look at St. Joseph that’s a little different from what many have come to think about Joseph. From the other gospels, we know much more about Mary, Elizabeth, Mary Magdalene, Peter and many of the apostles. But it’s Matthew who gives us insights into the character of the man, Joseph.
For many years, it was thought that Matthew’s focus on the men in Jesus’ life, with very little on the women, reflected the male chauvinistic bent of his times. However, recent scholarly work on the community Matthew wrote his gospel for has caused reconsidering that conclusion about Joseph. It appears that Matthew’s focus on the men, and particularly on Joseph, was for a very practical reason.
The Jewish Christians in Syrian Antioch were expelled from the synagogues and excommunicated from the Jewish community all together.
Most scholars, today, agree that Matthew wrote his gospel to the Jewish Christians in Syrian Antioch shortly after the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. Many who fled Jerusalem went to Syrian Antioch. Sadly, soon after their arrival, the Christians among them were blamed for the destruction of the Temple. The charge was that the Christians “believed in two gods, the Father and the Son." So, they were expelled from the synagogues and excommunicated from the Jewish community all together. They were cut off from their traditional roots, from what shaped their lives and customs for generations. The Jewish Christians in Syrian Antioch were in danger of having no roots in a community environment, in a culture that was very community-centered.
The role that women had played in Judaism, for centuries,
was abruptly ended for Jewish Christians in Syrian Antioch.
Although much of Jewish life, then, was male-centered, your membership in Judaism and even your right to enter the Temple and participate in public worship came through your mother, not your father. All of your connections to Jewish religious and cultural life were through the women, not the men. But, for the Christians in Syrian Antioch, expulsion from the synagogue and the Jewish community meant that the women’s religious and cultural role was now gone. The role that women had played in Judaism, for centuries, was abruptly ended for those in Syrian Antioch.
It's evident that Matthew felt that it must be the Christian men who would have to forge the new connections to life-shaping customs; to be examples of proper social behavior and personal responsibility. And Matthew held up Joseph as a prime example of what a man was to be. But he did this in a way that’s not obvious to those who do not think as Jews of his time did.
We might be inclined to think that Joseph was a reserved, retiring, perhaps shy sort; some artists even picture him as elderly, a kindly old gentleman type. But Matthew tells us something quite different. Matthew tells us in this passage that God spoke to Joseph in a dream [cf. Mt. 1:20a]. And Matthew tells us, elsewhere, of two other occasions God spoke to Joseph in dreams [cf. Mt 2:13 and Mt 2:19]. This is an important hint Matthew is giving his listeners.
Scripture records that God spoke to those with a more
contemplative personality, such as Abraham and Moses, in visions;
but He spoke to men of action in dreams.
From knowing their Scriptures well, Matthew’s Jewish listeners would have recalled that there’s a common characteristic of those to whom God spoke in dreams. They were all men of strong convictions; men of natural courage, men who preferred action over words. Jacob, Samuel, Daniel and Solomon are just a few examples. Scripture records that God spoke to those with a more contemplative personality, such as Abraham and Moses. in visions; but He spoke to men of action in dreams.
By telling us that God spoke to Joseph in a dream, Matthew is stating that Joseph is a man of action, of natural courage and strong convictions. And as we heard, upon waking Joseph immediately acted on what God called him to do - no further convincing required. Joseph “stood up and was counted;” he didn’t ponder the situation at length, he acted - the Christ-child on earth depended on him. That’s the Joseph Matthew tells us about.
This Gospel passage is doing more than passing along
an interesting tidbit about St. Joseph, it is a call to action.
This Gospel passage is doing more than passing along an interesting tidbit about St. Joseph, it is a call to action. We live in a time when we face a situation remarkably similar to that which Matthew’s community faced; for much different reasons, of course, but the effects are the same. Today, the larger society in which we live is pushing those who hold to the core Christian values further and further aside. Those who, for generations, have helped shape our lives and customs, taught what was proper behavior and fostered personal responsibility have been effectively silenced, even ridiculed. There is a free-for-all going on in our times over just what is acceptable conduct.
We are in need of courageous men, men who will keep us connected to all that is right and proper; who will be examples of what is acceptable conduct; demonstrate personal responsibility in their daily lives; men who will be the real “Josephs” of our times. If Matthew were here today, he’d surely say: “Stand up and be counted, men, the body of Christ on earth depends on you. Be the Josephs of your times.”
“Till next time,
Deacon Bob Evans
December 20, 2022
Matthew 1:18-24; 2:13; 2:19