This familiar story of the dilemma that righteous Joseph faced is easy to contemporize. Who among us has not been betrayed by a friend, or cheated on in a relationship. All of us have fought the urge to tell the world what that other person did to you, in order to shame them and make them feel as awful as you do. Even though we know that it is wrong, darn it we are mad and it isn’t fair that everyone thinks Miss So and So is so perfect when we have the scars to prove she is not. It is easy to understand the hurt and anger of Joseph and to admire his righteous desire to do whatever needs to be done quietly, so as not to hurt Mary’s reputation anymore than she has hurt it herself by her bad decisions. Most of us leave this story admiring Joseph as a stand up guy.
Our admiration of Joseph is on the right track, but honestly, our context, falls short of understanding his courageous act. As far as righteous people go, Joseph was a rock star. We know enough about peasant marriages in first century Israel to understand that their union was likely not the culmination of awkward first dates, stolen kisses in the dark, and promises made to each other alone in a field as the sun is setting. Marriage in Joseph’s day was all about family and honor.
When a son was ready to be married, his father approached the father of a daughter that was at least twelve but no older than sixteen. Whether the daughter in question was nice, kind or attractive was unimportant to the father. He likely had never talked directly to the daughter, but had only heard about her through his wife. Men and women didn’t mix much then. He would approach the father because the girl’s family was solid and upright. An alliance with the daughter’s family would help his family’s status in the village and certainly not hurt it. While surely some fathers of girls did not want their daughters marrying outright jerks, the deciding factor for them was not only the honor of the son’s family but their wealth, too. For the daughter’s family would get paid a good sum of money for “giving” their daughter in marriage.
“It looks like Mary is becoming a woman.” “Yeah, she will make a good wife to a man.” “I’ve got such a man in my house, Joseph. He is eighteen, a hard worker, kind. He will make a good husband and father.” “Yes, Joseph, might do. We should talk more about this.” At this point, they would turn the negotiations over to the mothers. They would haggle and hammer out the details. The status of the family, the beauty of the girl, her disposition, the fertility of her sisters, would all influence the price of the young girl. When the mothers determined that price, the fathers would give final approval. Then, they would write it up into a contract.
Next, the families would throw an engagement party, where the two fathers would sign the contract in front of the entire village. A feast with drinking and music would follow. It was a legal contract. While, considered married in the eyes of the law, they were not allowed to consummate the marriage until the wedding night, which usually happened within a year of the engagement. If for whatever reason, the son wanted out of it before they were married, the daughter had little to no ability to get out of it, he would have to seek a divorce and give cause. To seek a divorce anytime in these tiny villages, would have been a big deal and something not easily kept quiet.
What’s clear is that Joseph’s situation is a lot different than our memories of being a jilted lover. Mary and Joseph were probably never lovers in any way we would imagine. While in a small village, it is likely he knew Mary, he might never have spoken directly to her. Joseph seems to have wanted to save Mary from embarrassment, but it was certainly not his primary concern. Since it is likely the women of the town all knew that Mary was pregnant, long before word ever got to Joseph, she was already experiencing public shame. Joseph’s primary concern was most likely his parents. They would have been putting great pressure on him to do the “right” thing. The way they saw it the entire honor of their family was riding on Joseph getting out of this marriage by publicly divorcing Mary. While Joseph’s family did not likely want the letter of the law enforced and have Mary stoned for adultery. They did want all to know what she had done, and what their son had not done.
The actual dilemma for Joseph when he falls asleep that night is how to do the right thing by his family-which is divorcing Mary making clear the grounds were her fault and not his so as not to bring shame on his parents-and the right thing by Mary, which is to do this very public thing, “quietly”, so as not to injure her reputation any more than it had already been injured. I am not sure how he would have done both things at once in a small village where everyone knew everyone’s business. Figuring that out might have caused a restless night of sleep.
In his tossing and turning an angel visited him in a dream, telling him to not choose door number one or two, but take a look at door number three. This angel said Mary had not committed adultery, the public accusation he would have had to make in order to divorce. She was still a virgin. The baby in her womb was put there by God through the Holy Spirit, without sex of any kind. Now that you know this Joseph, the angel said, you can’t righteously divorce her. There are no grounds. So the righteous thing is to marry her. Now, go back to sleep and in the morning, do the right thing. What are the odds Joseph ever slept even a wink after that angel left.
All of this is to say, that Joseph’s problems were a little greater than when we were 21 and our girlfriend dumped us for our best friend. Joseph wanted to do the righteous thing, but the righteous thing was the hidden thing to the world. The righteous thing in his family and his neighbor’s mind was to divorce Mary. Pregnant, she was now another’s man wife in the eyes of the law and of God. Joseph couldn’t/shouldn’t marry her. To do so would bring shame on him and greater shame on his family. The angel sent from God, though, told him the righteous thing was to marry this pregnant girl because she had not committed adultery. Yet, no one was likely to believe that if he had tried to tell them.
The righteous thing would have not only been hidden from the world, but Joseph, too. Because Joseph is never mentioned after Jesus leaves childhood, it is likely he died long before Jesus was baptized and started his ministry. It is likely he lived the rest of his life without seeing the miracles his adopted son performed, hearing his great teaching, counting the huge crowds, or witnessing the amazing resurrection. It is likely he never had proof that what the angel said was true. He might have lived his entire life wondering if there really was a dream or if it was just some bad hummus. Joseph’s father and mother may have died believing that their son had brought great shame on them by marrying that girl.
The righteous thing was the hidden thing. Joseph is a rock star when it comes to righteousness. It is cliche to say that doing the right thing is not the same as doing the easy thing. However, how many of us will do the right thing if we know our family and friends will not only judge us harshly for this but possibly never speak to us again. It is easy to talk about God being the center of our lives, but much harder to put God’s concerns and desires above our concerns and the desires of those whose opinions we value most. This story of Joseph doing the right thing reminds us all what a high bar that can be. How can we have faith like this? It starts by surrounding ourselves with faithful people to help strengthen us before we are challenged. Listening to God, remembering what we have been taught when we are challenged. Then praying for the courage to stand alone in our decisions. Amen