Summary: How do we deal with shaming?
It amuses me when modern commentators on the Bible refer to the culture of Jesus’ day as being an honor-shame culture as though this isn’t the case today. But we have all kinds of shaming today. For example, there is fat shaming. In fact, shaming and the bullying that goes with it has driven many to suicide. This seems to happen often on social media all too often. Despite our hubris as having advanced from ancient culture, we are all to much like them. People have never wanted to be put down, and honor is as important as ever. The Sensei in Karate Kid could not answer “honor garbage” were it not for the fact that honor is still highly valued. We have some who even try to steal this honor. Politicians have faked military service or have greatly exaggerated their military exploits in order to gain status. Others fake their resumes and education. These all point to the appearance of honor, and when they are confronted and deny, they are all to much advertising that shame is alive and well in the world today.
So what has all this to do with the Christmas story? A casual glance at the accounts would seem that there isn’t much of a connection. But the connection is actually quite strong. Let us look into the Christmas account according to St. Matthew.
Matthew’s account could be described as the Christmas story according to St. Joseph in comparison to Luke which is written from Mary’s point of view. Joseph gets comparatively less attention than Mary, and perhaps this is right. Even this is a reversal of the norm of the day where men were honored, and women were pushed into the periphery. We know from the genealogy that Joseph was a descendant of King David. We don’t know whether Matthew’s genealogy is the literal genealogy of Jesus or the right of kings genealogy which can be described as the next in line to be the King of Israel. I tend to thing the latter. The right of king genealogy recognizes that a particular line might die out and that a new line be traced from the closest possible kin in the ancestry. We know that the line of kings through Solomon died out at Zedekiah whose children were killed. The next in line to be king would have to be traced from another ancestor of David. So we know there is a break in the line of physical descent. Luke probably traces the actual genetic descent from David, and there the line traces through David’s son Nathan.
If this reckoning is correct, then Joseph was first in line to be King of Israel. This indeed is a position of honor, except the kingship was in the hands of Herod the Great, an usurper, who wasn’t even Jewish but a Edomite. Joseph and Mary appeared poor enough to offer only two turtledoves at Jesus’ dedication. The Hasmonean kings which ruled over Israel’s brief independence weren’t properly next in line, but as they say around here, branch kin. So Joseph is an honorable man with an honorable pedigree who was held in relative obscurity and even contempt.
The story tells us that Joseph was engaged to Mary. An engagement held the same validity as marriage and could only be dissolved by divorce. In the most conservative interpretation of the day, divorce was only allowed if the woman was found not to be a virgin. The engagement was usually made in the bride’s village between the father of the groom and the father of the bride. But they were not allowed to come together and consummate to marriage. It was the groom’s responsibility to return to his home village and add a room on to his father’s house. Only when that room was finished and all the supplies needed for a week long feast stored up could the groom return with the best man to the bride’s village to call the bride and her kin (the entire village) to the feast. The consummation would happen during this feast. It would be the greatest of shame for protocol not to be followed.
Joseph was in the middle of preparing when word got to him that Mary was pregnant. Joseph was an honorable man and had been faithful to his vows. We can only imagine what he thought about this report other than it disturbed him. He pondered over his action. As the Romans alone held the power of the death penalty, he probably could not have her stoned. But he could publicly shame her in the presence of the village. She and the child she bore would be permanently shamed. The child would be called the son of his mother rather than his father which said that he was illegitimate. Joseph was obviously grieved, but decided to quietly divorce her. But she would still be shamed and so would the child. But Joseph, the son of Jacob had a dream. Like his namesake, God spoke to him through dreams. He was not to be ashamed to take Mary as his wife, because this birth was the sole exception to what everyone would ordinarily think. She was with child by the Holy Ghost.