Sunday, December 2, 2012

Not Categorically Unclean, but Holy [Matthew 1.18-25] (27 November 2011)

The countdown to Christmas begins today, the first Sunday of Advent 2011. Four Sundays of Advent and then comes Christmas, the day on which we celebrate the birth of God with us – Jesus. During the next few Sundays, till the middle of January we will be dealing with traditional Advent passages, meeting along the way some of the major characters leading upto, during and following the birth of Jesus.

Today our focus is on Joseph, the enigmatic parent of Jesus. Really, I wish we had more information about this man. But we have to deal with the fact that, for some reason or the other, our Gospels tell us next to nothing about him.

But Matthew tells us that Joseph was a ‘just’ or ‘righteous’ man. And we have to go with that. Matthew tells us this fact right after Joseph find out that Mary was pregnant and in the context of his decision to divorce her.

Now Mary was found to be pregnant. And Joseph knew that he had not slept with her. Last week I spoke about how we are scientists at heart. We want evidence before we believe things. Spontaneous pregnancy is not part of our experience today. And neither was it in Joseph’s day. The only conclusion he could come to was that another man was involved.

So what was Joseph to do? Remember, we have been told that he was a ‘righteous’ man. This means that he would have done as the Law of Moses would have prescribed. We cannot forget that Joseph was a Jew, not a Christian!

So what does the Law of Moses prescribe? We find the prescriptions that might apply to Mary’s situation in Deuteronomy 22. Here we find three situations that might have applied to Mary. 

First, she might have willingly slept with another man. If this were the case, the Law of Moses prescribed that she should be stoned along with the man whom she had slept with. If Joseph were a ‘righteous’ man according to the Law of Moses, he would have had to haul her before the elders and have her stoned. But he did not. Which means, he believed that Mary was not the kind to willingly sleep with another man. He trusted the character of the woman he had earlier decided to marry.

The second option in Deuteronomy 22 is that of a woman who is raped within the city limits. Here the idea is that, if you are in city limits, your cries would be heard by someone who would then come to your aid. Hard to believe these days, when people just watch others get murdered without batting an eyelid. But those were more honorable times I guess. So if Mary was raped within city limits, she would have cried out and would have been saved. If she did not cry out then she was guilty and had to be stoned.

So if Joseph believed she had been raped within city limits, then he would have had to haul her before the elders to be stoned because she did not cry out. The fact that he did not indicates that he did not believe this was what happened.

The third option in Deuteronomy 22 is that of a woman who is raped outside city limits. Here the idea is that, if you are out of the city, your cries would not be heard by anyone. So the woman is not held guilty if she were raped outside the city limits. 

Now, Deuteronomy does not tell us how such a woman must be treated. But divorce was an easy procedure for the husband in those days. Men would divorce their wives if they cooked something incorrectly. Surely the very idea that she had been raped would give them reason enough to put her away. So the Rabbis deliberated about this and concluded that a woman who was raped outside the city could not be divorced. This was to protect the woman. And so this option was not even available to Joseph. For if Mary had been raped outside the city, she would have proclaimed that and Joseph would have had to marry her. That he was even able to think about quietly divorcing her meant that she had said nothing about rape.

So here we have righteous Joseph, without options. The three possible applications of the Law of Moses had all drawn blanks. He knew that Mary had neither willingly nor unwillingly had sexual relations with another man. 

This is an important point. We often believe that the angel is the one who led him to this truth. But simple logical inferences and a healthy amount of trust would lead us to conclude that we were faced with something out of the ordinary. It is only a refusal to place ourselves in the shoes of a person who is devoted to the Law of Moses and who does not want to take the selfish and easy way out by accusing the woman that allows us to draw any other conclusions.

Joseph would have like the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle I think and the style of Sherlock Holmes. On many occasions Holmes tells Watson, “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

And so here Joseph, facing the impossibility of thinking poorly of Mary’s character, concludes that something weird and strange and out of the ordinary had happened.

Now weird and strange and out of the ordinary are just what defined things that are ceremonially unclean. Ceremonial uncleanness has nothing to do with dirt on your body. It has to do with the right things being in the right places at the right time and in the right way. Uncleanness was a simple matter of the thing not living up to some expected norm. Uncleanness, in other words, had to do with things that were different, things that were bizarre, things that were abnormal.

For example, eating pork was forbidden not because the pig wallows in mud but because it did not chew cud. Eating crustaceans was forbidden not because they were filthy but because they did not have fins and scales.

Making blended fabrics was forbidden not because mixing them would make the cloth more difficult to clean while washing but because the yarns were obtained from different sources.

Things that were out of place, that were out of the ordinary, were considered unclean. They did not fit. They did not belong. In other words, anything for which one could not find an appropriate category was considered unclean.

And what was happening to Mary had no appropriate category. The three possibilities had been discarded by Joseph and he was left with a situation that he could not define, that he, being a righteous Jew, had to conclude was unclean.

And so he thought of divorcing Mary secretly. That makes no sense. You cannot divorce someone secretly. Divorce is something done in front of others, just as is a wedding. Divorce has to be sanctioned by society. Like a wedding, a divorce is a public event for society must know that the two who were husband and wife, are now no longer that to each other.

What could it mean then that he intended to do this secretly? Simply that Joseph planned to divorce her keeping the knowledge that what was happening to her was unclean to himself. No one would question either of them since Jewish law permitted him to divorce her even for trivial reasons. He would simply divorce her on some trivial grounds and both could part ways. To society, her pregnancy would not raise any eyebrows since the grounds for divorce were not infidelity.

But both of them would know that something abnormal was happening in her. Only they would know that they could not classify what was happening to her, that what was happening to her was, therefore, unclean.

Is there any evidence for this? When someone breaks from a norm, it is a sign to pay attention. In our case, when Matthew breaks from his norms, we must be sharp to see what he might be telling us. This is the only place in which he separates the words for spirit and holy. The result is that v. 20 could have two readings. 

On the one hand is the translation as in all the versions: “What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” On the other hand is a tantalizing second possibility: “What is conceived in her by the Spirit is holy.” The word order indicates the second reading. But the conjugations indicate the first. And hence there is an ambiguity to the way in which we should read the end of v. 20.

Why would Matthew confuse us when he is perfectly capable, in every other reference to the Holy Spirit, of being unambiguous? Perhaps he wants us to hold both readings together, both applicable: This baby is holy because the Spirit is Holy.

And so now Joseph has a category in which to place what was happening to Mary. He knew the initiator of her situation. He knew that this was not a result of sorcery, witchcraft, black magic or a curse. This was not unclean, this was not profane. 

But his understanding went even further. He realized that what was happening to Mary was not even just clean and ceremonially acceptable. This was different, unique, separate, the invasion of the mundane sin entangled human existence by the creative mercy of the living God. This was holy.