18 December – Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 1:18-24

There were three stages for Jews getting married in Jesus’ time. There was the engagement, then the betrothal, and finally the wedding. The betrothal was a serious commitment. It was already the first part of the marriage. There would be no sexual relationship as the couple would not yet be living together, but it was a binding relationship. Normal married life began some months later when the husband took his betrothed into his home. To violate the betrothal by having sexual relations with another person was equivalent to adultery.

Imagine, then, the horrific dilemma of Joseph. He discovers that the woman to whom he is already betrothed, but with whom he has not consummated their relationship in marriage, is already pregnant. There could be only one explanation; she had been unfaithful and was having another man’s child. It was a very serious matter and, if brought out into the open, would have made Mary liable to death by stoning.

But Joseph was a “righteous man”. As a devout follower of the Mosaic Law, he would want to break the union with someone who had so seriously broken the Law. And yet, because he was such a good man, he did not want to expose her to a terrible punishment. In this, for his time and indeed for our own time, he shows extraordinary forbearance. Few men would be like Joseph and accept such a situation with such calmness and self-restraint. Most would find it a terrible blow.

It is at this point that there is divine intervention and God communicates the true situation to Joseph. He is assured that no other man is involved, and that she has conceived through the power of God’s Spirit. Joseph is further instructed to call the newborn child Jesus. Jesus, in Hebrew Joshua, had the meaning at this time of “Yahweh saves”. Jesus is so called because he will save his people from their sin.

And, as Matthew likes to do, he shows that all this is in fulfilment of an Old Testament prophecy (following the Septuagint text of Isaiah 7:14):

Look, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel…

‘Emmanuel’ means “God-is-with-us”. This will be re-echoed when, at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples just before he ascends to his Father:

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt 28:20)

Jesus remains with us for ever.

Joseph, now at peace, took Mary to his home as his wife. Thus there is no mistaking the origins of Jesus. He has a human mother, but a divine Father. He will be the perfect Saviour of his people: in a fully human person the power of God himself will be at work.

God still lives with his people. And he does that through the Body of the Risen Jesus, the Church, the Christian community and its communities all over the world. Each one of us is called to be Emmanuel. Through us people can meet God and hear the message of love and salvation and forgiveness and reconciliation. Let us renew our commitment to be Emmanuel for the people in our lives.

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