This next Sunday (the last Sunday before Christmas–yikes!) we will read about Joseph’s courage and Mary’s faithfulness. What follows is a reflection on Matthew 1:18-25 that I wrote for our weekly ListServ, “Hunger Sermon Starters” (if you are interested in receiving in your email inbox hunger related reflections on the lectionary, click here to sign up). Read the reflection and let me know what you think!
Through the faithful obedience of two normal people, with very real struggles and fears, God incarnate entered the world. How might God’s presence be needed in our world today? How is God calling us to be faithful? When we think about hunger and poverty, what might God be calling us to be and do as the body of Christ, God’s hands and feet?
A deeper look at the Gospel reveals an excellent opportunity to think about systems and structures that keep people hungry. After telling us that Mary miraculously conceived from the Holy Spirit, Matthew is careful to demonstrate Joseph’s piety (1:19): “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Joseph, for reasons that are not explicit (Was he worried about how it would look for his betrothed to be pregnant? Did he question her fidelity?), wishes to leave Mary once he discovers that she is with child. Matthew seems to suggest that Joseph’s status as a “righteous” man is protected by his willingness to put Mary away “quietly.” It was culturally appropriate to abandon Mary, leaving her to be a young single mother on her own.
Allow for a provocative question: How is Joseph’s desire in any way “righteous”? Matthew’s justification implies that it is acceptable (even proof of one’s righteousness) to leave a young woman to fend for herself and her child, so long as it is done privately. In spite of Mary’s manifest vulnerability, her health, security, and status are irrelevant. To be fair to Joseph (and Matthew), he was simply operating in the norms and mores of his society (here we see the systems and structures). Moreover, Joseph’s faithfulness to God’s call shows his courage in standing against unjust systems when necessary.
Today, in many parts of the world (and yes, in some sectors of the Global North as well), women and children are seen as second class citizens, and can be simply discarded much like Joseph wished to do to Mary. Women suffer disproportionately from hunger and poverty and are more likely to be abused (sexually and otherwise) and trafficked. On the flip side, women are multipliers when it comes to effectively addressing hunger and poverty. Women produce 60-80% of food crops in the Global South. Yet they are far less likely to own land. Women are also more likely than men to invest money in their family. In short, we see a system (in this case pervasive sexism) that perpetuates and exacerbates hunger and poverty. (For a host of relevant facts and data and some clever media presentations, see www.girleffect.org.)
This week’s Gospel, in my opinion, does not adequately challenge the system (but it does draw us into a discussion of the problem). But we can challenge the system. We can give to programs that support education and empowerment of women (ELCA Good Gifts is a good place to start—see https://community.elca.org/netcommunity/page.aspx?pid=474). We can advocate for laws and policies that protect the rights of women (see www.elca.org/advocacy). We can educate ourselves and others about the issues (the aforementioned Girl Effect Web site will give you plenty to think about). Let’s get started!