Adopting Jesus

Adopting Jesus

Solemnity of St Joseph. Fr Richard Joseph Ounsworth preaches on the faith of Saint Joseph.

The first line of the Gospel appointed for the Feast of St Joseph is actually the end of a long list of names — St Matthew’s list of the ancestors of Jesus Christ.

As it goes through the long history of the people of Israel, from Abraham, through Isaac and Jacob to David, to the great kings like Josiah, and some not so great ones, it builds up a pattern: A was the father of B, and B was the father of C, and C was the father ? We are shown how the long pattern of Israel’s relationship with God, based on the covenants with Abraham and with David, reaches at last in Jesus its long climax.

Only, at the end the pattern is broken. It ought to read ‘Jacob was the father of Joseph, and Joseph was the father of Jesus who is called Christ.’ But it doesn’t. Just as the covenant reaches its climax, there is a strange breaking-in of the power of God in the virginal conception of Jesus; a fulfilment, yes, but a shattering one.

We might even wonder whether this makes everything that goes before it irrelevant. If Joseph is not the father of Jesus — and Matthew, like Luke, makes it very clear that he isn’t — then what does it matter who Joseph’s parents and grandparents are? Part of the answer lies in the fact that it is Joseph who gives Jesus his name. In the Jewish custom of the time, if a woman’s husband named her child, he acknowledged him as his own, regardless of natural parentage.

So today’s feast is a celebration of adoption. We might say that, on behalf of the whole people of Israel, whose history Matthew has just taken us through, Joseph accepts Jesus not only as his own son, but as the promised Son of God — a title for the Messiah; he accepts him as the climax of Israel’s history.

The promises we hear about in the first two readings today have been kept, Matthew wants us to see, but kept in a way that could never have been imagined, and kept in a way that might so easily look like betrayal. For this is just the first in a long line of ways in which the life of Jesus must have looked like a shattering disappointment of Israel’s hopes:

Israel’s Anointed One, the Messianic Son of God, is not born to the descendant of David but smuggled in by adoption?

The one who was to purify Israel from all her defilement spent all his time eating and drinking with notorious sinners?

The Saviour of his people, who was to rescue Israel from oppression and restore God’s Kingship over the Promised Land, was captured and humiliated by Israel’s enemies?

The King of Kings and Lord of Lords was tortured to death, dangling uselessly from a cross outside the city like a common criminal.

But the Angel of the Lord told Joseph that this child, this crushing disappointment, must be named Jesus ‘for he will save his people from their sins’ — the name ‘Jesus’, which is Greek for Joshua or Yehôshûa, means ‘the Lord will save’. And Joseph did what the Angel told him to do.

When he adopted Jesus as his own son, he also adopted him as Saviour of the world. He adopted him as the perfect fulfilment of all God’s promises to his chosen people. He, like his wife, showed a faith in God the like of which the world had never seen. And as St Paul will go on to say later in his Letter to the Romans, this faith is what marks out the true Israel, which receives its inheritance not by blood but by the Spirit of adoption.

It is this faith that makes it possible, Paul tells us, for us to cry ‘Abba — Father’. Only a child can have this sort of faith. When St Joseph accepted Jesus as his child, he allowed himself to be a child of God. Let us today adopt Christ as our model, name him as Saviour, and so accept our adoption as children of God.

Readings: 2 Sam 7:4-5,12-14,16 | Rom 4:13,16-18,22 | Matt 1:16,18-21,24

fr Richard Joseph Ounsworth is resident at Holy Cross Priory, Leicester, teaches scripture for Blackfriars, Oxford, and is the Editor of Torch.