“When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (Matt 1:24)
Today’s teens are significantly more tolerant than their elders, according to a recent Pew Research Center study (“Millennials, a Portrait of Generation Next”). Young people born between 1981 and 2000 think nothing of dating members of other races. One student summed it up: “People are people, regardless of their skin color, religion, or culture. We have no reason to be fearful of anybody.” At the same time, studies of college students show that they are about 40 percent lower in empathy than students of the previous two or three decades (see the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research).
Researchers suggested that the decrease in empathy is due to factors such as the numbing effects of violent video games, the impersonal nature of technology, and the glib, harsh language that is standard on television and online. Schools find that they need to construct activities designed to enhance understanding and empathy, which go far beyond tolerance.
Today’s Gospel brings to the fore the situation of Joseph, whose culture had little tolerance for a formally betrothed woman who was found to be with child by someone other than her intended. Joseph is a righteous man, faithful to all the demands of the Jewish law. The strictest interpretation of the law would call for the death of the apparently adulterous Mary (Deut 22:23-27). But Joseph is unwilling to denounce her publicly and searches for a way out. There cannot be a secret divorce; two witnesses are needed, and Mary’s pregnancy cannot long be hidden.
Joseph’s first solution is to avoid a public trial and divorce Mary quietly, without declaring the reasons (see Deut 24:1). This solution would preserve Joseph’s reputation, but Mary would still be exposed to public shame. The only way to preserve Mary’s honor would be for Joseph to complete his marriage to her and adopt the child as his own. In order for Joseph to make this choice, he has to shift focus away from concern about his own righteousness and reputation and turn empathically toward Mary. Only when he can make her the center of his attention, allowing himself to feel her distress, can he make the divinely directed choice that will uphold her honor at the price of his own.
In so doing, Joseph mirrors the divine action of empathy with humankind manifested in the Incarnation. Just as the Holy One rectifies the broken relationship with humanity by becoming one with us, so Joseph rescues a dishonorable and potentially deadly situation by choosing to unite himself completely to Mary. Joseph exemplifies what their son Jesus will later teach his followers: one must go far beyond what the law requires in order to truly fulfill it.
This is what St. Paul calls “the obedience of faith” in his letter to the Romans. Obedience, as Paul elaborates later in this letter, is not blindly following commands, but comes from hearing, “and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). In fact, the word “obedience” (hypakoē) comes from the same root in Greek as does the verb “to hear” (akouein). In the Gospel, Joseph’s ability to hear with his heart the cries of his beloved Mary as well as the voice of our empathic God, leads to his faithful obedience. As Christmas approaches, it can be difficult for us to hear God’s voice above the din of the many demands. When we pause each day to listen attentively, our faithful obedience, like that of Joseph, can have world-changing power as it creates the space for the Holy One to be ever birthed anew in our midst as God-with-us.
Professor of New Testament Studies