Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (Matthew 1:18b-19)
We often read Matthew’s account of Joseph’s “annunciation”-that is, his learning that Mary was going to bear the Christ-without really seeing what was happening here. His fiancée was pregnant. She told him a strange man had come and told her she was going to have a baby and, as far as she knew, she was already pregnant. The man promised her the child would one day be the long-awaited Messiah. If you were Joseph, her fifteen- or sixteen-year old fiancé, what would you be feeling as Mary told you this? We know that at first Joseph did not believe her story. What did he believe? Do you think he took this news calmly?
I have met with dozens of people in my congregation after they discovered their spouses had been unfaithful. This is painful enough. But in the case of Joseph’s discovery, Mary was carrying the baby of the one with whom she had been unfaithful. (Again, keep in mind that Joseph did not yet believe Mary’s story about a virginal conception; he believed she had been with another man.)
What words would you use to describe what Joseph must have been feeling? Betrayal? Hurt? Anger? Do you think he was brought to tears when he was all alone, thinking about Mary with another man?
The law of Moses made provisions for such cases: “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, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death” (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). We don’t know how often this sentence was actually carried out, or whether such persons were more often merely publicly disgraced, but the penalty was possible; and such penalties are occasionally still carried out in the Middle East.
Listen again to our Scripture: “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Despite his hurt and pain he was unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace. Why not? Matthew tells us it was because Joseph was a “righteous man.”
Righteousness or holiness is often seen as closely linked to obeying the law or following the Scriptures. But in this case, Joseph’s righteousness led him to ignore the clear teaching of the law. What does this tell us about the New Testament’s definition of righteousness?
Righteousness, as exemplified first by Joseph and then by Jesus, is more about showing mercy and compassion than it is following the law. Here Joseph was acting upon the words of another Scripture, in which God said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13), which quotes Hosea 6:6).
I wonder if there is anyone who has wronged you, for whom Joseph’s story is an invitation for you to show mercy. It may not change the one to whom you show mercy, but it most certainly will change you. Blesses are the merciful.
Lord, you know the grievances I carry in my heart for the wounds others have inflicted upon me. Help me to extend compassion and mercy as Joseph did, and in so doing to find true righteousness. Amen.