Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice
4th Sunday of Advent
Matthew 1. 18-25: Doing the Right Thing
Begin by using the Study Guide Method as outlined
Recall some recent stories of teenagers in the news, good ones as well as bad.
Reflection on the text:
Here is a story of two people whose lives are bound together within the purposes of God. The central character, Joseph, is ‘engaged’ to teenager Mary, chosen to be the mother of Jesus. This honour and privilege is overshadowed by the public shame and stigma attached to a young woman who is pregnant and whose ‘boyfriend’ is not responsible for the pregnancy.
Joseph faces a serious dilemma. Mary is carrying a baby conceived ‘from the Holy Spirit’ (v20) but Joseph is convinced she has committed adultery. Legally, he has to divorce her. But all credit to him for not wanting to shame her publicly by dragging her through the courts (v19). However, against all odds, his mind is changed completely when he is told in a dream of the amazing happening in Mary’s womb and of God’s plans for the child, and he marries Mary after all.
The real event of Advent is that God comes to change the world, our communities and each one of us, not just through a virgin conception and baby lying in a manger, but through the One who is with us today, who shatters our self-righteous attitudes and moves us beyond our fears and misgivings into his Way of radical justice.
(See also, "More Background Information')
- Joseph and Mary are told that in the birth of this child a new world order would begin. However, the culture in which they lived meant that acceptance of this might bring humiliation, ridicule, shame and great uncertainty. Think of situations where ‘justice’ choices and ‘doing God’s will’ have brought concern within Christian communities and/or public ridicule upon Christian communities. To what extent are you, in your community of faith, willing to sit loose to cultural and/or family expectations in order to follow God's leading?
- Where in your local community is work being done to support and encourage young people in the life choices they are having to make? What is your faith community doing to help them? What else could you do?
(See also, "Going Deeper)
- Light a candle and ask somebody to read the story through another time.
- Invite members to say out loud a word or phrase from the reading that has struck them as a result of this study.
- In the quietness, remember those known to you who have shown courage in doing the right thing, especially young people.
- On small pieces of paper, write the names of communities and individuals known to you who are acting or have acted justly in the face of fierce opposition and place them (in a dish) in front of the symbolic ‘empty chair’ or ‘open door’ (see Advent 1 for details). Thank God for them aloud or in silence.
- Close with the Lord's Prayer and/or the Grace.
More Background Information
The right thing for Joseph, in the circumstances, was to divorce Mary. Not only Jewish but also Greek and Roman law demanded that a man divorce his wife if she were guilty of adultery. People held in contempt any man whose love for his wife outweighed the loss of face that would come through failing to publicly disown her. In his character, Joseph combines a sense of right and wrong, self-discipline and restraint, justice tempered with mercy and obedience to the word of God.
Matthew’s reference to Joseph as a "just man" (v19) anticipates Jesus’ words that God demands justice that "exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees" (chapter 5 verse 20). What Joseph (and the Scribes and Pharisees) thought was ‘just’ was not what God had determined to be the "right thing to do”. Joseph needs ‘new eyes’ to see the ‘new thing’ that God is doing.
He stands, in this story, for the just, law-observant Judean Christians in Matthew's communities who accept Jesus and make possible the survival and spread of the gospel. But Matthew shows that to live as households of justice they must go ‘beyond’ the justice of the Law in their actions. God’s justice extends beyond the limits of human systems of justice. Matthew’s communities are assured that God will take care of them and their fears and anxieties as they seek to bring God’s reign and justice (the Jesus Society) into being in human affairs.
Going Deeper (if time allows)
This story announces God’s deliverance from sins in Jesus, but salvation does not come in isolation. It comes with the promise of God’s presence and God’s delivering justice. Many people split salvation (deliverance), the work of the Holy Spirit (presence) and justice into separate compartments. They think they are on God’s side whilst doing nothing to challenge or prevent injustice. They may even support injustices, and cover it up in God talk.
- In the naming of Jesus, Matthew highlights Jesus’ role as saviour from sins and how God’s presence would be experienced through him in a unique way. But deliverance from sins is set alongside the promise of God being with us and the bringing of justice. As bearers of the mark and name of Jesus, how is God’s forgiveness, God’s presence and God’s justice expressed and experienced in the life and witness of your faith community? Make a list under each heading.
- What do you make of the statement ‘God’s justice extends beyond the limits of human systems of justice’? In what ways does your Christian community and its members seek to ‘go beyond’ in its dealings with people? Can you identify examples of times when you failed to ‘go beyond’?
- What new things do you see God doing in your context?
Inevitably, this radical way of life involving deliverance, justice and presence through the Holy Spirit brings ridicule, hostility and humiliation. Share together some examples of that experience. Pray together about the challenges you face as a community and as individuals in your daily lives.
A Useful Visual Resource