Lectio Divina

4th Sunday of Advent (A)

The justice of Joseph saved Mary’s life
Matthew 1, 18-24

1. Opening prayer

Lord Jesus, send your Spirit to help us to read the Scriptures with the same mind that you read them to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the light of the Word, written in the Bible, you helped them to discover the presence of God in the disturbing events of your sentence and death. Thus, the cross that seemed to be the end of all hope became for them the source of life and of resurrection.
Create in us silence so that we may listen to your voice in Creation and in the Scriptures, in events and in people, above all in the poor and suffering. May your word guide us so that we too, like the two disciples from Emmaus, may experience the force of your resurrection and witness to others that you are alive in our midst as source of fraternity, justice and peace. We ask this of you, Jesus, son of Mary, who revealed to us the Father and sent us your Spirit. Amen.

2. Reading

a) Key for reading:

The majority of the members of the Christian Communities in Palestine and in Syria, for whom Matthew wrote his Gospel, were converted Jews. They accepted Jesus as Messiah and believed in Him. They were persecuted because of their faith. Their brother Jews said to them: “You Christians are deceived! Jesus is not, nor can he be the Messiah!” In the text which we are meditating on this Sunday, the concern of Matthew is evident, he wants to confirm the faith of the communities. It is as if he wished to tell us: “You do not live deceived! Jesus is truly the Messiah! “The intention of Matthew in chapters one and two of his Gospel is to inform the readers concerning Jesus, whose activity will be described beginning in chapter three. In the first two chapters, Matthew presents the credentials of Jesus, the new Legislator, the new Moses. In the genealogy (Mt 1, 1-17), he had already shown that Jesus belongs to the race of David and of Abraham (Mt 1, 1). In these verses (Mt 1, 18-25) Matthew continues to present Jesus to us describing his birth. He says how Joseph received the news that Mary was with child and, the prophecies which will be realized with the birth of Jesus, showing that he is the expected Messiah. During the reading, it is well to pay attention to what the text tells us on the person of Jesus, especially in what concerns the significance of the two names that he receives.

b) A division of the text to help the reading:

Matthew 1, 18: A legal irregularity in Mary
Matthew 1, 19: The justice of Joseph
Matthew 1, 20-21: The explanation or elucidation by the Angel
Matthew 1, 21-23: The melody in Matthew’s Gospel
Matthew 1, 24-25: The obedience of Joseph.

c) The text:

Matthew 1, 18-2418 This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph; but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being an upright man and wanting to spare her disgrace, decided to divorce her informally. 20 He had made up his mind to do this when suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.'
22 Now all this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: 23 Look! the virgin is with child and will give birth to a son whom they will call Immanuel, a name which means 'God-is-with-us'. 24 When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife to his home; 25 he had not had intercourse with her when she gave birth to a son; and he named him Jesus.

3. A moment of prayerful silence

so that the Word of God may penetrate and enlighten our life.

4. Some questions

to help us in our personal reflection.
i) Which point of this text struck you the most? Why?
ii) According to the words of the Angel, who is the Son who will be born of Mary?
iii) According to the words of Matthew, which prophecy of the Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus?
iv) Which are the two names which the Child receives and which is God’s project hidden in these names?
v) How is Joseph’s attitude to be understood? What does this attitude teach us?
vi) In what exactly does Joseph’s “justice” consist?
vii) Which is our justice, compared with that of Joseph?

5. For those who desire to go deeper into the theme

a) Context of the evangelic text:

The genealogy of Jesus (Mt 1, 1-17) leaves us with a question. Next to the names of the forty-two paternal ancestors of Jesus (Mt 1, 17), Matthew gives the names of four maternal ancestors only: Tamar (Mt 1, 3), Rahab, Ruth (Mt 1, 4) and the wife of Uriah (Mt 1, 6). The four women conceived their sons outside the parameters of purity or of the legal justice of that time. Therefore, the state of these four women is irregular before the Law. The irregularity of these four ancestors is evident. It is sufficient to read the texts of the Old Testament where their story is described. And thus, at the end of the genealogy arises a question: “And Mary, the spouse of Joseph, from whom Jesus is born (Mt 1, 16), does she also incur in some irregularity of a legal type? The text on which we are meditating this Sunday speaks about this.

b) Commentary on the text:

Matthew 1, 18: A legal irregularity in Mary
Mary is with child before going to live with Joseph, her promised spouse. The one who looks at things from outside is aware of an irregularity and will say: “Mary, how horrible!” According to the law of Moses, these errors merited a death penalty (Dt 22, 20). To avoid this mistaken interpretation of facts, Matthew helps the reader to see the other aspect of Mary’s pregnancy: “She conceived by the Holy Spirit”. To human eyes this may seem a transgression of the Law, but in God’s eyes this was exactly the contrary!

Matthew 1, 19: The justice of Joseph
The pregnancy of Mary takes place before she went to live with Joseph, not because of a human deviation, but because of the divine will. God himself made fun of the law of legal purity in such a way as to make the Messiah be born among us! If Joseph had acted according to the requirements of the law of that time, he would have had to denounce Mary and possibly she would have been stoned. Pregnancy before marriage is irregular and according to the law of legal purity, she should be punished with the death penalty (Dt 22, 20). But Joseph, because he is just, does not obey the requirements of the law of purity. His justice is greater. Instead of denouncing, he prefers to respect the mystery which he does not understand and decides to abandon Mary in secret. The greatest justice of Joseph saves both the life of Mary and that of Jesus.
Thus, Matthew sends an important message to the communities of Palestine and Syria. It is as if said: “Behold, what would happen if the rigorous observance would be followed, which certain Pharisees demand from you! They would put the Messiah to death!” Later Jesus will say: “If your justice is not greater than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 5, 20).

Matthew 1, 20-21: The explanation or elucidation of the Angel and the two names of the Son of Mary: Jesus and Immanuel.
“The Angel of the Lord” helps to discover the deepest dimension of life and of events. He helps to make an X-Ray of events and to perceive God’s call which with our human eyes alone we cannot perceive. The Angel makes Joseph understand that Mary’s pregnancy is the fruit of the action of the Holy Spirit. God himself, the day of creation, blew over the waters and filled with force the creating Word of God (Gen 1, 2). The new creation takes place in Mary. It is the beginning of the new heaven and the new earth, announced by Isaiah (Is 65, 17). The Son of Mary receives two names: Jesus and Immanuel. Jesus means “Yahweh saves”. Salvation does not come from what we do but from God, rather from what God does for us. Immanuel means “God with us”. In the Exodus, when getting out of Egypt, God goes down to be with the oppressed people (Ex 3, 8) and tells Moses: “I will be with you” (Ex 3, 12) and from that moment on he never abandons his people. The two names, Jesus and Immanuel, render concrete, and even go beyond the hope of the people.

Matthew 1, 22-23: The melody of Matthew’s Gospel
“All this took place in order that what had been said of the Lord by the prophet could be fulfilled”. This phrase or other similar ones are like a melody, words which are repeated many times in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 1, 23; 2,; 4, 14; 8, 17; 12, 17; 13, 14.35; etc.). This reveals the purpose which the author had in mind: to confirm for his readers of Jewish origin the fact that Jesus is truly the promised Messiah. In him the promises of the prophets are fulfilled.
Here Matthew quotes the text of Isaiah: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, whom she will call Immanuel” (Is 7, 14). The title Immanuel more than a name reveals the meaning of Jesus for us. Jesus is the proof that God continues to be with us. The name itself of the Child is Jesus (Mt 1,25).

Matthew 1, 24-25: The obedience of Joseph
Waking up from sleep, Joseph does what the Angel told him and took Mary to his house. And he continues to say that he had no relation with Mary, to confirm that Jesus is born from the Holy Spirit.

c) Extending the information:

A key for the Gospel of Matthew - The Gospel of Matthew is addressed to a community of converted Jews, who live a deep crisis of identity in relation to their Jewish past. When in the year 65 AC the revolt broke out against Rome, the Jewish-Christians did not participate and they abandoned Jerusalem. The Pharisees did the same thing. After the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, the Pharisees reorganized the people who had remained and they lined up, always in a more decisive way, against the Christians, who at the end were excommunicated. This excommunication made the problem of identity even worse. Now, officially excommunicated, they could no longer go to their Synagogue, to their rabbi. And the question arose among them: To whom do the promises belong: to the Synagogue or to the Church? Who is the true People of God, they or we? Is Jesus truly the Messiah? Matthew writes his Gospel for this community. The Gospel of Matthew can be defined by the three following words:
i) The Gospel of consolation for those excommunicated and persecuted by their brother Jews who do not accept Jesus as the Messiah (Christ); it helps to overcome the trauma or shock of the breaking.
ii) The Gospel of revelation: It shows Jesus as the true Messiah, the new Messiah, in whom is the summit of all the history of the Old Testament with its promises.
iii) The Gospel of the new practice: which describes the practice of Jesus, and shows how to attain a new justice, greater than that of the Pharisees.

This happened in order that it could be realized - by means of this phrase repeated many times in his Gospel, Matthew touches on the point of greatest tension between Christians and Jews. Starting from the Bible, they said: “Jesus is not and cannot be the Messiah!” Starting from the Bible itself, Matthew responds and affirms: “Jesus is truly the Messiah!”

The pregnancy of Mary - Matthew as well as Luke quote the text of Isaiah “A virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, whom she will call Immanuel” (Is 7, 14). But there is a difference. Luke places Mary in the centre and gives more importance to the sign of virginity (Lk 1, 31). Matthew places Joseph in the centre and gives more importance to the significance of the name Immanuel.

Joseph’s dream - the Angel appeared to Joseph in his sleep and helps him to understand. With the help of the Angel, Joseph succeeded in discovering God’s action in this event, which according to the opinion of the time, seemed to be only the fruit of deviation and of sin. Angel means messenger. He brings a message and a help to perceive God’s action in life. Today there are many Angels who guide us in life. Some times they act while we sleep, in our dreams, other times in our meetings, in conversations and in Biblical encounters, in facts, etc. So many Angels, so many Angels!.

6. Prayer: Psalm 72 (71)

His name endure for ever!

God, endow the king with your own fair judgement,
the son of the king with your own saving justice,
that he may rule your people with justice,
and your poor with fair judgement.

Mountains and hills,
bring peace to the people! With justice
he will judge the poor of the people,
he will save the children of the needy and crush their oppressors.
In the sight of the sun and the moon he will endure,
age after age.

He will come down like rain on mown grass,
like showers moistening the land.
In his days uprightness shall flourish,
and peace in plenty till the moon is no more.
His empire shall stretch from sea to sea,
from the river to the limits of the earth.

The Beast will cower before him,
his enemies lick the dust;
the kings of Tarshish and the islands will pay him tribute.
The kings of Sheba and Saba will offer gifts;
all kings will do him homage,
all nations become his servants.

For he rescues the needy who calls to him,
and the poor who has no one to help.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the needy from death.
From oppression and violence he redeems their lives,
their blood is precious in his sight.

Long may he live;
may the gold of Sheba be given him!
Prayer will be offered for him constantly,
and blessings invoked on him all day.
May wheat abound in the land,
waving on the heights of the hills,
like Lebanon with its fruits and flowers at their best,
like the grasses of the earth.

May his name be blessed for ever,
and endure in the sight of the sun.
In him shall be blessed every race in the world,
and all nations call him blessed.
Blessed be Yahweh,
the God of Israel,
who alone works wonders;
blessed for ever his glorious name.
May the whole world be filled with his glory!
Amen! Amen!

7. Final Prayer

Lord Jesus, we thank for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice that which your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, your mother, not only listen to but also practise the Word. You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.


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Last revised: 13 December 2004