We act out the Christmas story with Josh’s side of the family every Christmas. We have scripts, make-shift costumes and props, the whole nine yards. Our girls have to take turns playing Mary because she’s “highly favored” by both God and little girls alike. Mary has always been a favorite of mine too, though I must admit, I’ve got a new-found favorite – the dark horse, Joseph!
Last year I taught a series called “Casting Christmas” and had great fun researching the back-story of the Biblical birth narratives. In my research I came across an author who called Joseph a “theological nuisance.” Is he even necessary? Jesus really only needed Mary to be His earthly mother because He already had a heavenly Father.
Even though I disagree with this viewpoint, it inspired me to dig deeper into my research about this mysterious man that was given the position of greatest influence in Jesus’ early life.
Today I’ll just share my favorite “aha” moment with you; It’s based on Matthew 1:19,
“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.
Being “faithful to the law” meant a few things in this context.
First it meant that Joseph knew the Jewish laws about relationships. When a husband suspected his wife of cheating he turned to Numbers 5. Here the protocol is spelled out and it’s a humiliating, disciplinary procedure performed by a priest where the woman “drinks the bitter waters that bring the curse” basically subjecting herself to the consequences of her sin (assuming she has sinned). After the lawful “bitter waters” procedure was carried out by a priest, it was not uncommon for the discipline to get out of hand with the other villagers bringing their own ‘discipline’.
The sinning woman was usually brought into a public place and made into an object lesson. Her clothes were torn, her hair let down, her jewelry removed, and passersby (especially other women and younger girls) were encouraged to stare. Hence the phrase in Matthew 1:19 of “public disgrace.”
Secondly, being “faithful to the law” meant that Joseph knew the second half of Deuteronomy 22 which explains the consequence of infidelity – death by stoning.
Here’s where it gets heavy. Since Mary was pregnant, Joseph couldn’t just apply the rules about “the bitter waters” because those were for suspected unfaithfulness. Joseph didn’t just suspect her of unfaithfulness. She was pregnant – all suspicions were confirmed! Now he had the cold, hard truth that she had been unfaithful, or so he thought. Being “faithful to the law” meant that the expectation on Joseph as a pious Jew was to carry out the law and hand his bride over to be publicly disgraced and stoned to death.
Joseph’s tentative decision to “divorce her quietly” is, in my opinion, one of the best unsung acts of mercy in the Bible.
Mary had broken his heart. He had every right to be furious, humiliated, outraged. He had every reason to seek revenge for Mary’s unfaithfulness. He was lawfully justified in stoning her to death and yet two things stayed his hand – mercy and unconditional love. He was in love with his bride and his love was without conditions. Even though he KNEW she’d sinned against him, he chose to extend mercy to her, and to save her life because he loved her.
Imagine Joseph’s relief! When the angel tells him to take Mary as his wife because the Child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, the original Greek implies that Joseph immediately went out and brought Mary home as his bride.
Does this remind you of someone?
“I will make you my wife forever, showing you righteousness and justice, unfailing love and compassion. I will be faithful to you and make you mine, and you will finally know me as the LORD.” - The words of the LORD, recorded by the prophet Hosea in chapter 2:19-20
Does someone in your life need mercy from you today? Is there a more a grace-filled way for you to resolve a situation? My prayer is that we can follow the examples of both Jesus’ earthly father and His Heavenly Father being a people of “unfailing love and compassion” this holiday season.
Merry Christmas! Crystal Nachtigall