My wife and I married nearly three decades ago. Our family home is Georgia where my wife was born. She has a very large extended family with literally hundreds of aunts, uncles and cousins of varying degrees living in northeast Georgia. On one little country road, a cluster of homes where my mother-in-law’s family lived was at least as large as many ancient villages. Although I was born in the Midwest and later moved to North Carolina, I adopted the Peach State as my own in 1980. Since my wife and I married, we have lived in South Carolina, New Jersey, Missouri and Kansas. We even lived out of the United States for a time. Our two children, however, returned to Georgia when it came time to attend college. Georgia is home.
Even though Joseph and Mary’s immediate families lived in Galilee, their extended families lived in Judea. When Mary discovered she was pregnant, she returned to her extended family home in the “hill country of Judea” to visit Elizabeth (Luke 1:39). Joseph’s family home was Bethlehem (Luke 2:3-4), and it was to there he returned when the governor required everyone to return to their “own town.” Their immediate families may have moved to Galilee, but Judea was still “home” to Mary and Joseph in every way imaginable because of the power of the family bond.
It’s difficult for modern, western people to understand just how strong family ties were in the ancient near-eastern world. They were much stronger than one finds even in the largest, most connected families today. The Bible gives us hints of the importance of family relationships, but we’re usually too blind to see them. The Nativity Story itself contains a few of these hints. The first 16 verses of Matthew’s gospel consists solely of a recitation of Jesus’ family connections. When Elizabeth declared that her son’s name would be John, neighbors (and likely kinsmen) objected that it wasn’t a traditional family name (Luke 1:61).
Marriage was always a family affair. Joseph and Mary wouldn’t have so much chosen each other as they would have been chosen for each other. Notice the passive voice in Matthew 1:18: “his mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph.” It was the families that did the pledging.
It would be hard to overestimate the power of family relationships in the lives of ordinary Galileans and Judeans, and it is within that family structure that a large part of the gospel story plays out. Modern people often see the macro politics of kings and empires in Jesus’ life story. Jesus’ story itself, however, is sometimes more concerned with the micro politics of families and villages.
If the family was one extremely important aspect of life in society, honor was another. (See David deSilva’s Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity for more on the role of family honor in the ancient world.) Families, as well as individuals, could lose honor in the eyes of their neighbors. I think most people understand the power of “Don’t embarrass your family. Make your family proud. Your actions reflect on us.”
The story of Jesus’ birth presents a challenge to Mary’s honor, and to Joseph’s as well. Joseph and Mary were not married when Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and Mary’s pregnancy was “discovered” (Matthew 1:18).
Despite the threat to his honor, Joseph didn’t want to disgrace Mary publicly, but desired to separate from her quietly (Matthew 1:19). This “disgrace” could have quite serious consequences in Mary’s culture, from expulsion from the community to death by “honor killing.” While the term “honor killing” is a bit anachronistic, the concept is not. Deuteronomy 22:20-21, in fact, prescribes stoning at the gate of the father’s house for a bride who cannot prove her virginity. While I’m not certain that this law was universally enforced in Joseph’s day, I am certain that shame and humiliation could destroy the lives of those who experienced it. Those who shamed a family or a community at the very least were shunned, and a pregnant unmarried girl would have very dim prospects of caring for herself 2000 years ago.
Matthew describes Joseph’s kindness as “righteousness” (Matthew 1:19). It’s an interesting way to describe Joseph’s behavior, especially in the light of Deuteronomy 22:20-21.
An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and told him to “not be afraid” to take Mary as his wife. All three angelic visions connected with Jesus’ birth contain the admonition not to fear: Joseph in Matthew 1:20, Mary in Luke 1:30 and the shepherds in Luke 2:10. The angel’s words to Mary and the shepherds in Luke, however, pertain to the fear associated with the angelic vision itself. In Matthew, Joseph’s fear pertains to his loss of social status due to Mary’s pregnancy.
Joseph obeyed the angel’s message and took Mary into his home as his wife (Matthew 1:24). He didn’t let concerns about his own honor deter him from obeying God’s word. God’s opinion of him was more important than his friends and family. This would have been an important message for early Christians whose families opposed their newly adopted faith and their participation in the Christian church. Being a Christian was certainly not an avenue to popularity and prestige in the either the Jewish or the Hellenistic-Roman world.
This is an important messages for us as well. It is true that the Nativity story is an affirmation of the value of ordinary human life in the sight of God. It reveals God’s grace and self-abasing love for all humankind. It is an occasion of holy awe and wonder as we ponder how the “word became flesh.” But this beautiful, gracious story also challenges us to put God first. It calls us to costly obedience.
Furthermore, we know that Mary’s pregnancy was the result of an act of God. Only those ignorant of God’s power and purpose in her pregnancy could have called it shameful. Time and again, the gospels raise questions about how we determine what is good and honorable in this world. The things of God and the ways of God are always worthy of honor. If we ever have to choose between honor in God’s eyes and honor in the eyes of those around us, it is God’s opinion that matters most.