Gospel:  Matthew 1:18-24


Not In Control


How has life turned out differently than you imagined it? Have you been disappointed or encouraged? Why?


Take charge! Use your personal power! Improve yourself! Influence others!


Self-help is big business. And not without reason. The purveyors of self-help empower us to change for the better. But, like any popular movement, there is a negative side. We might tempted to assume that change means control over others and the circumstances of life. Once we step over the line between what can be changed and what cannot, we eject wisdom. Soon, we will face disappointment. Our dreams turn to dust.


Disappointment was once described as "...what happens to our plans when life gets in the way." Certainly Matthew had this in mind when he wrote these passages about the birth of Jesus.


Matthew laid out a simple story with history-changing results. A common man who was engaged to a peasant girl faced a dilemma. He had to choose an honorable way out of the shameful situation of pre-marital pregnancy. He reasoned along commonly held lines until God stepped in.


Literal Translation


18 Now, the birth of Jesus (the) Christ happened this way. After his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they lived together, she was found, having with child from (the power of) the Holy Spirit. 19 But Joseph, her husband, being righteous and not wishing to shame Mary (in public) planned to divorce her in private. 20 But, as he reflected on these (situations), Look! an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David! Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife! For the (boy) having been conceived in her is by means of the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son and you will name him 'Jesus,' since he will save his people from their sins." 22 Now, all this happened so the word of the Lord spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:


23 "Look! A virgin will have with child
and will bear a son;
they will call his name 'Emmanuel'"

which is translated, "God is with us."


24 Having gotten up from his sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded. He took (Mary as) his wife.


1:18 "before they lived together" is literally "before they came together." Mary was promised to Joseph in an arranged marriage (i.e., betrothal), but he had not taken her into his home (the actual marriage ritual). Hence, "came together" meant cohabitation, not sexual intercourse.

"with child" is literally "in (the) womb."


1:19 "righteous" can refer to moral character ("righteous man") or religious observance ("righteous Jew"). If Joseph was a "righteous man," he had pity on Mary and wished to spare her public humiliation. If he was a "righteous Jew" and followed the Law, he was bound by religious duty to end the relationship. Either meaning is possible; both meaning infer compassion on Mary.


"divorce her in private" did not mean he ended the betrothal quietly. Keeping Mary's condition secret in a small community dominated by clans would have been impossible. It meant that he would not press charges of adultery against Mary. Thus, he wished to spare her the official title of adulterer and its outcast status.


1:21 This passage combined a Greek translation of Isaiah 7:14 ('she will bear a son' from the Septuagint) and Psalm 130:8 ('he will save his people Israel from their sins'). The latter part of the sentence ('he will save...') explained his name. Ancient people believed a name revealed the character and inner power of the person. The angel commanded Joseph to name the boy 'Jesus' because of his function in God's plan.


When Matthew stated Jesus would "save his people from their sins," he did not imply Christ would stop people from sinning. Salvation meant the restoration of God's relationship with humanity. With the birth of Jesus, God was with his people.


1:23 This verse has two parts: 1) Matthew's adaptation of Isaiah 7:14 and 2) a clause that explains the name "Emmanuel." Matthew quoted Isaiah 7:14 from the Septuagint. But he made one change. "you will call him..." became "they will call him..." The change shifted the focus from name ("you" being the father who named the child) to reputation ("they" being the people who would react to Jesus).


The term "virgin" had a broader meaning in the time of Jesus than a female who had never had intercourse. A virgin was simply a young girl of marrying age.


Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a semi-skilled material worker (i.e., "carpenter"), in the small Galilean hamlet of Nazareth. Custom and status set the guidelines for this arrangement.


Betrothal was an important social institution in the ancient world. Back then, people did not marry for love (this is a rather modern notion). Parents or grandparents arranged marriage for their children from birth. Since social order in the ancient world was built upon relationships between extended families, marriage was a primary means to strengthen political alliances and economic ties between these families.


Normally, women from each clan would propose and negotiate the nuptial arrangement; the clan leaders would approve the union. On behalf of his son, the father of the groom would offer gifts to the father of the bride. Once the gifts were accepted publically, the bride would move from the "house" of her father into the "house" of the groom. In reality, marriage meant the bride changed families; once the bride moved in with the groom, she was the responsibility of the groom's family.


Any sexual relations the bride might have during the betrothal (including rape) was considered adultery. Once publically declared, the betrothal could only be broken with a divorce.


Although she lived with her family, Mary was a betrothed to Joseph and was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. [1:18] In other words, it was not only her discovery; her family knew of her child-bearing. This left Joseph in a dilemma; if he married Mary, either he would admit to being the father (a dishonorable option) or he would be shamed by her suspected "indiscretion." If he divorced her with charges of adultery, he would put Mary's life in danger; adultery was punishable by death. By divorcing without charges, Joseph sought to save his reputation and save Mary's life by shaming the "real" father into marrying the young girl. In this way, Joseph sought to be righteous; he was just as concerned for Mary as he was for himself. [1:19]


God had other ideas and Joseph had a dream. Since Joseph tried to make the right choice, God would honor him with a "son", so Joseph's name would continue. But this "son" was a heavenly gift, a honor far surpassing any human platitude. The name God gave Joseph's "son" spelled out the child's character and destiny. He was Jesus, which means "God saves us." Living with the gossip Joseph would endure was a small price to pay for such a blessing from God. [1:21]


In Joseph's dream, Matthew saw the fulfillment of Scripture. Using a Greek variation of Isaiah 7:14, Matthew stressed that God would fulfill his promise; through someone as insignificant as a young girl (i.e., virgin), God would be intimate with his people. The child would be "God with us." [1:22-23]


In the end, Joseph took Mary into his "house" (i.e., she became part of his family) in order to fulfill God's will. [1:24]


Catechism Theme: Mary's Virginity


497 The gospel accounts understand the virginal conception of Jesus as a divine work that surpasses all human understanding and possibility: "That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit," said the angel to Joseph about Mary his fiancé. The Church sees here the fulfillment of the divine promise given through the prophet Isaiah: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son."


Joseph's decision to bring Mary into his family was based upon events outside his control. When he heard the Good News in a dream, Joseph as already confronted with a pregnant fiancé. God's plan was already at work; Joseph could only react.

But the scope of that plan was mind boggling: a virginal birth. Many pagan myths tell tales of gods fathering children through various means. But Mary's virginal birth was different; she gave birth to a distinctly different person (different gender, physical features, personality, etc.), not a "clone" of herself. New Testament scholar, Father John P. Meier, has pointed the unique character of the virginal birth; no religion before or after has produced a dogma this unique.


Like Joseph, we are challenged by the magnitude of God's plan when we say we believe in the virginal conception of Jesus. This is a unique event outside the realm of nature. Yet, it places a unique person in our world, with a unique purpose: to be "God with us." Like Joseph, we can only react to God's plan with a simple "Yes, we believe, Lord."


God's will and our vision differ. Joseph was changed because of God's plan for his life. The threads of God's plan were laid long before Joseph was born and affect millions of people 2000 years after his death. How has God's plan affected you? How has it changed you life in ways unforseen?


Culture and experience tell us to take control, to plan for the future, and trust in our own abilities. But Christmas presents an alternate view, trust in God. Life may get in the way of our plans, but we will have the strength to survive and thrive because we trust the One who is really in control. We might not be in control. But God is.


What situations, relationships, or events do you feel are out of your control? Present them to God this week. Pray for his will and his blessing.