I want to talk about Mary and Joseph as a picture of submitting our physical realities to spiritual realities. We live in the natural but are called to the supernatural.
My favorite themes in 1 Corinthians are: first, the discussion of the physical body vs. the spirit– and how those competing appetites affect how we worship and serve God, and second is, the way that Christians are assigned, appointed, anointed, and arranged in the spiritual realm to be useful in the Body of Christ with intent and specificity by the Lord.
The interplay of the physical and the spiritual pervades the New Testament– starting in the Gospel narratives. There are a lot of picnics, meals with disciples, lunch at the in-laws, dinner parties with sinners, biblical feasts, festivals, weddings, Passover, the Last Supper. Jesus’ earthly ministry is punctuated by meals.
Jesus also tells the woman at the well that he can give her living water so that she will never be thirsty after drinking it. He speaks of us “feeding” on Him, the bread of life– A spiritual meal that does not lack, does not require more meals after.
The Gospel of John, the most “spiritual” gospel, reveals Jesus as the Holy Spirit, yet talks repeatedly of food, in order to talk about spiritual hunger, and that Jesus satisfies.
This seemed the premise of Jesus’ rebuke of Martha. Martha was busy with her, possibly usual task, of preparing the meal for Jesus and his disciples. She was attending to her physical assignment, which probably would have been fine had she not complained about Mary. Mary was not preparing a meal for Jesus but was receiving a meal from Him. She was fulfilling her spiritual assignment to feed on Jesus.
We have both physical and spiritual assignments from God, but! Our physical duties always yield to the spiritual ones. Your earthly life must punctuate your spiritual life. If your spirituality is just a comma in between your workday and dinner, don’t be surprised that your soul continues to hunger and that your flesh continues to lust.
The account of Joseph’s encounter with the angel Gabriel in Matthew 1:18-25, brings insight into the gravity of both the physical and spiritual assignments that God gives us, and how we are called to submit our physical assignments to our spiritual ones.
Joseph was physically anointed, as a man, to be head of a household, husband to a virtuous woman, father to legitimate children. He was called in the natural to be religiously observant, an adherent to the law, an abhorrer of sinfulness. Yet, Gabriel tells Joseph “she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus,” Matthew 1:21. (emphasis mine)
Before this dream of Gabriel, Joseph had planned on quietly breaking off his engagement to Mary. He didn’t want to embarrass her, but it seems that he was “afraid” (Matthew 1:20) of what the implications of marrying a pregnant Mary might be.
Could the implications have been feeling like he had botched his earthly mantle as a faithful Jewish man? That he had failed to be a strong leader over his household, in which his wife and children respected him? That he might not be admired for his morality, but that people might snicker at him as a cuckold? That he’d sacrifice the satisfaction of living a righteous life in the eyes of man?
Could taking Mary as his wife– throwing away his fear– mean throwing away everything he thought God had called him to as a man?
To be the leader who would raise, protect, provide for, and name Jesus– “And Joseph named him Jesus,” Matthew 1:25– would require that Joseph lay down every right inherent to his God-given, physical assignment as a man.
He would lay down everything he had ever been taught about being a religious man in order to take up the demands of his new spiritual assignment.
The first counter-intuitive, counter-cultural aspect of this assignment was that Joseph had to tailor the very beginning of his marriage and family life to his wife’s calling and his son’s purpose. Men in his time did not organize their lives around their wives and children.
A patriarch in Joseph’s day would probably feel that it is their right to set the agenda, to take the most important role, to delegate menial tasks to others, to arrange themselves in the natural position to receive praise. Women and children wouldn’t even be part of the plan, let alone “be the plan.”
It must have been hard to believe that this was what God was asking him to do! Wasn’t this opposed to the natural order of things?!
In his calling, to be Mary’s husband and Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph did not: set the agenda, was not even nearly the most important actor, accepted menial tasks rather than delegating them, and was completely outshone by every one else in the Nativity narrative.
Joseph, Jesus’ father, is an early and strong example of living Christianity. He completely submitted his physical duties to his spiritual assignment. He did not reserve any natural craving, but satiated his spirit with his faith in God’s word over his life.
If we continue to be hungry for the rights inherent to our physical identities, we forfeit our time at Jesus’ feet and our usefulness to the kingdom.