The Gospel is scandalous. It has always been so. The story of Jesus begins with a scandal in that the bride of Joseph is found to be with child, but not from him.
Incidentally, the word “scandal” in the Greek means “a stumbling block.” It is a stone that is tripped over. It is the word used by Jesus in the Gospel reading last Sunday when Jesus tells the messengers from John the Baptist to go back to John and to tell him what they have seen and heard:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
That “offense” word is skandalizo, from which we get the word scandal. Jesus says: “Blessed is anyone who is not tripped up by me.” The word is also sometimes translated as “cause to sin” as when Jesus says that it would be better for anyone who causes others to sin to have a millstone tied to them and be dropped in the sea. The word “cause to sin” is skandalizo. So, Jesus is saying that those who scandalize, or trip up other believers in their faith would be better off if they were drowned.
But this is also an acknowledgment that the Gospel itself trips people up. It scandalizes people. We like to pretend that this is somehow not the case, but it is. People who actually live the Gospel trip up even those who claim to be Christian. Forgiving those who hurt us and not seeking revenge trips people up. Giving your food, or sharing what you don’t need to eat with someone who has nothing to eat trips people up. Refusing to use violence when confronted with violence trips people up. Worse than that, those who live the Gospel will be ridiculed for it, even by those who claim to be Christian.
Love itself is a scandal. It does not follow normal rules. It does what it wants and loves as it wants to love. And God is love; therefore, God is the Great Scandal. God trips us up. We think God is supposed to be one way, but God continually reveals Godself to us in a way that is different, that challenges us, that goes against what we think is right. God does not play by the rules. God lives outside of the rules. There are no rules that govern love. Love is not a matter of legislation. God is what God is regardless of who and what we think God should be. And that trips us up.
The Gospel is scandalous. But the scandal does not begin with Jesus’ preaching or actions. It begins before he is born. The promise of his birth is scandalous and the manner in which he is born is also scandalous.
Matthew tells us that Mary was betrothed to Joseph. This does not make Mary an “unwed mother” because she was only “betrothed” to Joseph and not married to him. Marriage was a two-step process that began with betrothal. At betrothal, a man and woman would exchange consent before witnesses, and they would be considered legally married, but they did not begin to live together. The wife would remain with her parents for up to one year before the second stage of marriage, known as the “coming together.” It was in the second phase when the wife would come and live with her husband and the marriage would be consummated.
Matthew explicitly tells us that Mary and Joseph are at the first stage of marriage, that is, betrothal, and that Mary conceived before they lived together—that is to say, before the second stage of marriage. Therefore, Mary is married to Joseph, but she and Joseph had yet to start living together and had yet to consummate the marriage. This is evidence that Joseph is not the father of Jesus (because we are told that the Holy Spirit would cause Mary to become pregnant). This informs the audience that although Joseph became Jesus’ legal father, he was not Jesus’ biological father.
Yet, this fact many Christians now use to show how Jesus is the Son of God and not the son of Joseph also created a scandal for Joseph. The description that Matthew gives us about Joseph is that he is a “righteous man.” This means for Matthew and his audience that Joseph diligently obeyed the Jewish Torah. In the case of finding your wife to be with child from someone else beside the husband, the Torah was clear: this was adultery and the adulterous woman was to be publicly stoned to death. This was adapted under the period of Roman occupation because the Romans prohibited provincials and occupied people from performing capital punishment. Rome had no problem with executing people. Rome simply reserved for itself the right to mete out executions. Under Roman occupation adultery was no longer a capital offense. Since the woman could no longer be publicly stoned to death, she was subjected to a public trial and public divorce.
The information that Joseph is a “righteous” man does not simply tell us that Joseph is a “good” man, but it tells us that Joseph feels obligated to follow what the rules tell him must be done: he must divorce Mary. Yet, Matthew also makes it clear to us that Joseph was not some cold, legalistic person who followed the rules at the cost of the feelings of others. He does not wrap himself in the Torah and use it as a pretext to hurt others, even the person whom he thinks has just betrayed him and the vows they had made to each other. The righteousness of Joseph is also expressed through mercy. He is obligated to divorce Mary, but he is not willing to humiliate her or her family. He will divorce her, as he feels he must, but he will do so quietly.
This is a theme we will hear in Matthews Gospel more than once. Righteousness is expressed in mercy. The rules are not void of mercy, but expressed through mercy. The letter of law is not what is intended, but the spirit of the law, which is mercy, dictates how the law is applied. Jesus will twice quite that God requires mercy, not sacrifice. And the people who knew Jesus understood him to either place mercy above the Torah, or to use mercy as the means of understanding the Torah. Simply put: mercy is the law.
Joseph thinks he has come up with a plan that is what God would want him to do. Yet, God, through an angel, tells Joseph to do the opposite of what Joseph thinks is right. God scandalously tells Joseph to remain married to Mary and to complete the second part of the marriage process and bring her into his home. And Joseph does what he is told. He is the first person in the Gospel of Matthew to obey God. Others like Herod, the scribes, and the religious leaders, are actively working against God. But Joseph hears the scandalous plan for him told to him by an angel of God and Joseph abandons his own plan (which seems right and which is in keeping with the Torah) and instead does what God tells him to do, which is shocking and scandalous to anyone who knows about the situation.
Joseph not only claims Mary as his wife, he claims the child as his own. He “names” the child, which means he accepts the child as his legal, firstborn son. This makes the child a part of the lineage of Joseph. We know from the genealogy that began the Gospel, and from the angel’s address to Joseph as “son of David,” that Joseph is a descendant of King David. By “naming” the child, Joseph makes Jesus a descendant of David, so that the promise made to David (that a son of David would rule forever) could be fulfilled.
Also scandalous is why the name is to be given to the child. The angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus, which was a common enough name at the time. But the angel also says WHY the child is to be named Jesus: he will save the people from their sins. What? As a group of Pharisees will remind Jesus one day: “Only God can forgive sins.” Only God can save people from sin. So the very act of naming Jesus becomes another scandal of the Gospel. The name Jesus is the Greek form of the name Joshua, which means “Yahweh is salvation.” Therefore, Matthew is associating Jesus with Yahweh. This salvation will also scandalously include Gentiles as well as the Jewish people.
The angel also tells Joseph that Jesus is “God with us.” Matthew’s Gospel begins and ends with the statement, or the promise, that God is “with” us. The word “with” does not only mean company, as in God is in our presence. The word “with” also is used as “for” and “solidarity.” We tells someone, “I am with you,” meaning: “I am for what you are doing,” or “I am in solidarity with you.” The word “with” also is used to mean “understand.” When someone who is listening to someone says: “I am with you,” they mean: “I understand what you are saying.” So Jesus as God With Us is a declaration that God is in our presence, God understands us, and God is for us and in solidarity with us. As Karl Barth says: Jesus is God’s “Yes!” to humanity.
I guess the point of all this is: there must have been many times when Joseph did not feel as God was with him. And as scandal seemed to beget scandal, he must have wondered what was happening to him, to his life, to the foundation and fabric of his faith. Yet, as confused as he is, he never forgets his mercy. His sense of what is right is neither offended, nor contradicted by, his sense of mercy. And no matter how scandalous and uncomfortable the situation became, he still found a way to trust that God was doing something – something that no one else could do and something that needed to be done.
Mercy and faith, not adherence to rules and laws, have changed the course of human history. Mercy and faith have altered human destiny. Mercy and faith have created the means of salvation for all. And mercy and faith are not past tense, but they are still present tense. They are still relevant and necessary. They are still the method through which people are discovering the means of their salvation.
Mercy and faith allowed Jesus, God’s “Yes!” to us all to be born into the world. Mercy and faith are still the insignia of those have come to the manger and knelt before their King. The gift we can all give to the world this Christmas is Mercy and Faith, for this is the gift that the world so desperately needs. This is the gift that we in the church need to remember we have already received, just as we must remember that received this gift to share with others because we only get to keep them for ourselves when we give them away to others.
Cling to mercy and faith and you will see that God is with you. cling to mercy and faith and you will hear the “Yes!” of God to you. God is in your midst. God understands you and what you are experiencing. God is for you and stands in solidarity with you. God is “with” you in every sense of the word!
May the Love who is God fill you with God’s Mercy and Faith.