Matthew 1: 18-25
Matthew’s telling of the birth of Jesus is very, very different from Luke’s. We’re accustomed to blending the two stories together. So, we have our nativities and pageants with shepherds arriving at a stable—followed by the wise men. All are there together.
But the two gospels are very different. We lose something when we so readily and easily combine the stories. Luke focuses on Mary. Matthew focuses on Joseph. In Luke, angels appear – first one comes to Mary, then a multitude appear to the shepherds in the fields. Joseph is almost an afterthought in Luke’s account. Here, in Matthew’s story, he is central.
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother 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.”
Joseph was a righteous man. He lived his life according to the tradition that he had been taught and according to the laws of his community. He was a man of faith. Yet, according to the law, handed down from generation to generation, righteousness demanded that Mary be put to death. She was found to be with child. We know, from the storyteller, that the child was from the Holy Spirit. But, Joseph couldn’t have known that. She had, by all appearances, sinned greatly. The law, God’s law, said she should be put to death.
“Joseph being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, resolved to dismiss her quietly.”
The law said that he should have her put to death. Now, scholars note that by Joseph’s time women were seldom put do death. But, instead, it was common to have a public dismissal. It would have been a way for Joseph to publicly declare that he had remained righteous, he had upheld God’s law. Publicly disgracing Mary was a way of fulfilling the strict requirements of that law.
But, we’re told, Joseph was unwilling to expose her to public disgrace – so he resolved to dismiss her quietly.
Without the public dismissal, Joseph may have been tainted as Mary certainly would have been. Strictly speaking, therefore, his decision to dismiss her quietly meant that he was willing to break with the tradition. He was giving the community a reason to question his own righteousness. We glimpse, in this little snippet, compassion. Joseph had compassion for Mary. She was in a position for which there was no good outcome. His compassion for her meant that although he couldn’t turn his back completely on God’s law as he knew it, he would not take part in carrying out that law in ways that further hurt her.
We hear a lot today about the loss of morality, the slipping of values. Strident voices tell us that we need to get back to the ways of the past, the morality that once guided the majority of the people. There are those pushing for laws that will force people into their understanding of what “righteousness” and “morality” looks like. And, more often than not, these strident voices call themselves Christian. They rail against practices and attitudes that, to them, are incompatible with their understanding of what faith is. They push for laws that reflect their values.
What’s missing, too often, is compassion. Yes, there is talk about being concerned about the “souls” of those who are not living as others think they should. But real compassion is lacking.
This season is a reminder that God’s salvation came not as a new law book, a new codified morality. God’s salvation came as a person. After Joseph had decided to dismiss Mary, an angel – a messenger from God – appeared to him in a dream. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…She will bear a son“Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus…This took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.”
Joseph was a righteous man. His righteousness was rooted in the law – yet the law was tempered by compassion. And in seeking to be compassionate, he more fully demonstrated what righteousness is.
“Show us the Father and we will be satisfied,” Philip said to Jesus one time. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” Jesus replied. When a specialist in the law asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was, Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The law is a gift intended to lead us toward that love – toward compassion that sees and acknowledges other people. I read a blurb this week about an interview with a politician who has worked against giving women the freedom to choose for themselves when it comes to abortion. A reporter asked him, “What do you think makes a woman want to have an abortion. He paused. Then he said,, “Well, there’s probably a lot of reas— I’m not a woman.” He laughed. “I’m thinking now if I’m a woman why would I want to get … Some of it has to do with economics. A lot of it has to do with economics. I don’t know. It’s a question I’ve never even thought about.”
It’s a question he never thought about. There was no compassion in his zeal to create laws that restrict the freedom of women to make decisions for themselves and their loved ones. The news this week has had the horrifying stories of Aleppo. Many have noted that our own nation’s choice to distance itself from the suffering there has contributed to the chaos –and the tragedy that continues to unfold. “Not our problem,” we might say. But God’s righteousness does not allow us to set limits on who our neighbors are. In Luke’s telling of the encounter between Jesus and the lawyer, the story of the Good Samaritan follows. An outsider, a despised outsider, provided the example of what it means to love one’s neighbor.
How might it change the discourse in our nation, in our cities and our communities if we seek that righteousness that Joseph demonstrated? I read about another politician who changed his views on choice after he listened to women’s stories.
There are so many spheres of modern life that need the righteousness that is based on compassion --- on the desire to see and hear the stories of those who struggle, of those who are often on the receiving end of harsh judgements. We need to listen to those who cry out –and even to those who have no voice. At times, like Joseph, it may seem that the path of compassion conflicts with God’s law. But Jesus reminded those around him, and teaches us, that the deepest, the fullest observance of God’s law sees, hears, and cares for and about our neighbors, whoever they might be. We need to hear the voices of women who see no other choice. We need to hear from those who cry desperately for us to acknowledge that Black lives matter. In this season, when we remember the stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood, we should certainly be attentive to the plight of refugees.
When we say that someone is righteous in our culture we tend to think more along the lines of “self-righteous.” Jesus condemned the Pharisees when their observances of the law became self-centered and so rule centered that they lost the ability to have compassion for others. They no longer connected. Joseph gives us a different image of righteousness. It was based on the law – but that law led him to a relationship with God that allowed him to “break” the law by taking Mary as his wife and accepting the child as his own – which he did when he named him.
Martin Luther said, “Sin boldly.” I think this story of Joseph tells us the same thing. When compassion and law seem to be at odds with one another, we err on the side of compassion. We live by faith – we seek to be grounded in the ways of God. Ultimately, that calls us to be known by love.