Here’s the opening verses of the nativity story from Matthews perspective, which focuses on Joseph.
Matt. 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her privately.
In Mary and Joseph’s culture to be “betrothed” carried a commitment level like marriage. If Joseph died while they were betrothed, Mary would have been considered a widow. If the couple wanted to split up, they would have needed an official certificate of divorce. And, even though being “betrothed” carried a commitment level like marriage, they were not married, so there was to be no intimate behavior. So, when Mary was “found to be with child” she was considered an adulteress in the eyes of the community. Awkward.
But, why would Joseph choose divorce her?
Because the only other option would have been to kill her.
That’s what the law required:
Deut. 22:23 says “If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man lies with her, 24 then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones…”
So, does he kill her or does he divorce her?
Either choice carried monumental consequences – there was no easy way out. Regardless of his choice now, his life would never revert to the way it was. Nor would Mary’s- she’d be either dead or despised.
Should he enforce the law in Deuteronomy 22? How could he not? That would be the easiest choice, the expected choice.
His family for generations had been part of the story of God’s compassion for the outcast and helpless. His was a family tree ripe with the fruit of stories of redemption. It goes back to Salmon and Rahab, Boaz and Ruth, Matthat and Estha, his father Jacob and his mother (I’ll get to these stories in next week’s blog post).
Joseph knew the law, but more importantly, he knew the God behind the law. He understood God’s compassion for the outcast, the poor and the helpless. In his compassion, he looked beyond the retributive penalty of the Mosaic law in order to focus on this broken, hopeless young woman who was close to being snuffed out, like one pinches out a smoldering candle wick.
Even before the angel explained the situation to Joseph Matthew calls him a “just man” – in fact, Matthew says it’s his “just” nature that prompts his action of compassion.
To privately divorce her was the most compassionate, most courageous thing he could have done in that situation, with the knowledge that he had before the angel explained it all to him.
Joseph was “just” in that he was operating with a higher sense of justice – a compassionate sense of justice that is found in the character of God. Matthew explains that he was “unwilling” to follow the law of Moses and stone her to death. To stand against the law of Moses required a strong confident man. Or a fool. He was also “unwilling” to bow to the pressures of the community which would have called for her death. To stand against the community’s expectations of following the law and stoning the apparent adulteress required a strong confident man. Or a reprobate.
Either path Joseph chooses he will carry emotional and social scares for the rest of his life.
After the angel’s explanation he chose to stand alone with Mary and accept the blowback of the religious and social community. Some of that scorn and shame would never dissipate (see John 8:39ff).
Joseph was a strong man that was not afraid to sidestep the expectations of his neighbors. He was not afraid to look at the law of Moses and say nope, not going to do that.
Think of this: if Joseph follows the law, Jesus is not born.
Joseph knew the law, but more importantly, he knew the God behind the law whose heart is compassionate.
I trust you will have (are having) a Merry Christmas celebrating the birth of Jesus!