A good reputation is an important thing. With a good reputation, we expect good references when seeking employment. With a good reputation, we hope people will be quick to believe a good report about us and skeptical about a bad report.
The limiting thing about our reputation is that it is essentially other people’s impression of our character, though not our character itself.
Joseph’s path to the manger is found in Matthew 1:18-25. Mary, Joseph’s wife-to-be, is discovered to be pregnant. Joseph is a “righteous man.” Problem. For Joseph, being a “righteous man” was not simply the sum of morally upright or religiously observant actions, though it included those things. To be a “righteous man” meant holding a particular social status in his community.
His standing as a righteous man demands that he separate himself from so obviously sinful a woman as Mary, which in New Testament times would have meant publicly disgracing and shaming her through divorce (betrothal, though not yet marriage, was legally binding and required divorce in order to sever). But as we see in verse 19: “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (NIV 2010). He is a righteous man, faithful to the law, but also merciful (We’ve met religiously observant people who were nevertheless merciless. Worse, we’ve sometimes been that person.). So he plans to go with the only other option he is aware of, a private divorce with two witnesses. Effective and quiet — a win/win.
But God has a different plan. In a dream, he tells Joseph that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit. I imagine Joseph realizing this is somehow God’s action and putting together that Mary is not to blame for potentially destroying his reputation, God is! “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.”
Joseph’s path to the manger, his path to adopting and raising the boy Jesus, demands that he lay down his reputation within his community in order to be faithful to his calling from God. Joseph’s path sheds light on our paths. We too must lay down our reputations in order to embrace the character and calling we have in Christ. And we must lay it down in two ways.
First, in order to receive Christ, we must lay down our reputation, as we’ve built it up to ourselves and others, as people who have our act together, are capable of providing for ourselves and living the life we’re designed by God for. To prepare for Holy Communion, we confess our sins, which is a beginning. Further, we confess not only our moral failures, but also our utter neediness and complete dependence on Christ for everything in our life. Our culture has accomplished much because of its value on self-reliance and belief in our own abilities and industriousness. But that’s not much help in this journey. To receive Christ, we must come to grips with the depth of our need for him.
Second, in order to serve Christ (and this is the direct parallel with Joseph’s situation), we must lay down our reputation in order to extend Christ to people. To serve God’s purposes, Joseph had to lay down his reputation, marry Mary, and raise Jesus as his own son. I think of how this played into the ministry of Jesus, a man who though sinless was considered “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:18-19). John Wesley described his transition from preaching in the sanctuaries to preaching in the fields by saying he “resolved to become more vile” in the eyes of “respectable” people in order to reach people for Christ.
We are not to brush aside our character, for that is who and what we actually are. But truly coming to Christ does mean laying down our reputation in the eyes of ourselves and others in order to be true to our character and calling before God. Joseph’s path helps to show us the way.