December 22, 2013
Psalm 80:1-7, 16–18
“When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child….”
Okay, stop right there—don’t add any shepherds or wise men or angels— no soft glow on the snow covered hills, and no celestial music playing in the background.
Just look at the raw story—all you have is a man named Joseph who is engaged to a woman named Mary.
Then Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant by someone other than him. Does she tell him? Does he notice the baby bump?
Don’t know—all we know is that Mary is pregnant and Joseph is not the father.
Even in our permissive culture, getting pregnant by someone other than your fiancé is not acceptable. As they say where I come from, “that dog won’t hunt!”
This is also a violation of the Biblical law. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 reads:
23 If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, 24 you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, (the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife.) So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
But Matthew tells us Joseph chooses a different path:
“Her husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
The phrase “Joseph being a righteous man” means that he will not marry a woman who has broken the Law of God and the phrase “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace” means he plans to divorce her quietly and not make a public issue out of it, which could lead to Mary and the baby’s death.
Of course we could be excused for thinking Joseph is concerned not only with Mary’s shame but also the shame that would fall on him for being engaged to such a shameful woman.
The ancient world and much of the non-Western world today are honor-shame cultures.
Recently in Yemen a father burned “his 15-year-old daughter to death because she committed the “crime” of talking to her fiancé before their wedding, reported Reuters on Oct. 23, 2013”. http://www.examiner.com/article/honor-killing-father-burns-15-year-old-daughter-to-death-for-talking-to-fiance
In Honor-shame cultures you must remove the shame in order to restore the honor by, as the Bible says, “purging the evil from your midst.”
You don’t have to live in an Honor-Shame culture to get this. Hester Prynne is forced to wear the scarlet letter by New England Puritans who were also quite good at shaming those who violated the honor of the community.
We all know what shame feels like.
It has been defined this way:
“Shame is an emotion in which the self is perceived as defective, unacceptable, or fundamentally damaged.” About.com It is “a mix of regret, self-hate, and dishonor.” Vocabulary.com
We feel guilt when we think we have done something wrong. We feel shame when we feel fundamentally defective as a person.
Racism and homophobia inflict shame on people who just by the color of their skin or their sexual orientation are determined to be defective.
Becoming pregnant by someone other than your fiancé is a deeply shameful act that reveals a broken person.
From Joseph’s perspective Mary has brought shame on herself, on her family, and on him.
Shame is a terrible feeling. When we are caught in its snare we may be tempted to hurt ourselves as the only remedy for the pain of being defective.
A teenager who has been bullied on Facebook for being overweight may hurt herself because we naturally internalize the shame even when we’ve done nothing wrong.
Most of us have shame lurking deep within us—some we’ve earned and some we’ve been given by others and therefore we are accustomed to not liking who we are.
Catholic Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen was once asked what he meant by Original sin to which he responded:
“I believe [original sin] is humanity’s endless capacity for self-loathing. From Richard Rohr
This self-loathing is so profound that we think it must be God himself who is making us feel this way.
Go see the new movie, “Philomena”, starring Judi Dench, to see how some Irish Catholic nuns shamed young unwed mothers in the 1950s.
Of course religious people nowadays use gossip to shame others, because it makes us feel better to discuss the shame of others instead of facing our own.
Yet, the story of Mary and Joseph doesn’t end this way.
Because we have a God that is beyond the little god our mind creates.
The living God intervenes through a dream and tells Joseph to ignore the shame and take Mary as his wife because this shameful event is also a God-event.
Those who have never read the Bible know it contains a bunch of laws with which it is easy to shame those who don’t keep them perfectly.
What they don’t know is the narrative arc, the story, of the Bible in which over and over God uses shameful people to transform the world.
Just look at the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
There are shameful men and women throughout it.
Abraham twice tells foreign kings that his wife Sarah is really just his sister so as to protect himself.
Jacob cheats his older brother Esau out of his rightful inheritance.
King David steals Uriah the Hittites wife and then has him killed in battle.
Or look at the women:
Tamer seduces and becomes pregnant by her father in law, Judah.
Rahab is a prostitute.
Bathsheba is caught up in the affair with David.
And none of these women is even Jewish.
These men and women are all listed as direct ancestors of the Lord of Glory.
God doesn’t shun them—God embraces them. This is obviously not a God of our own making.
The angel tells Joseph to take Mary and raise up this illegitimate boy as his own, and by the way, name him Yeshua, which means, “God saves”.
Is it any wonder that this boy would tell a parable about a half-breed Samaritan who saves the day or a younger son who ends up having a party thrown in his honor—in his honor—after shaming his father and his family?
Is it any wonder Jesus would say to the crowd, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” at the woman caught in adultery.
Is it any wonder that the child born in scandal would at the end of his life embrace the shame of the cross?
Most days we religious folk think we’ve got God figured out. We know the laws, we know the prayer book; we know how to hold our hands at communion. Yep, got god all figured out.
Until we don’t. Until we experience our own shame and realize we can’t even figure out ourselves, so how in the world can we possibly understand the Eternal One?
Is it any wonder faith in Christ continues to spread throughout the world as God in Christ continues to embrace people in their shame?
For us shame feels like the end of our life. For God it is the beginning of salvation.
The opposite of self-loathing is not “self-esteem”, because you’re still focused on the self which is the heart of our problem.
The opposite of self-loathing is “God-loving”, because in God-loving we are lifted above the shame and located where we truly are—in the heart of the One who made us.