The Gospels of Luke and Matthew tell the story of Jesus’ coming into the world from very different perspectives, so divergent that at times they seem almost to be two different stories that have characters with the same names. Luke focusses on Jesus’ mother Mary and her extended family. Joseph her husband is there in the background for much of the time. In Luke’s story, there is considerable preparation for the birth, with angels appearing well in advance to inform various characters of what will be happening. There is still danger and difficulty, but at least they know what’s going on and why.
By contrast, Matthew focusses on Joseph, though still without giving him a speaking part. There is no preparation in Matthew’s account. We are introduced to Mary and Joseph as a betrothed couple for whom life has suddenly become complicated. Mary somehow has a child in her womb. Perhaps she has some sense that it’s God’s doing, but Joseph doesn’t yet know that. Joseph must assume that the child is another man’s doing, and so he has a problem.
We need to bear in mind that engagement and marriage in that culture at that time were quite different from our common understanding. This was not about boy meets girl and them falling in love and exploring whether to make a life together. This was about the parents of each agreeing that it would be good for their families for the two of them to be married, and putting a commitment to that effect in place, perhaps years in advance of the actual marriage. This was a public engagement and meant that, though the betrothed continued to live each with their own family, they were legally a couple, making Mary off-limits to any other men.
Any violation of this relationship was regarded as quite scandalous, and the consequences could be severe. In a section from the 22nd chapter of the book of Deuteronomy that seems to have been written by someone with attention-deficit disorder, the penalty prescribed both for a woman in Mary’s position and for the other man was death by stoning. It is not clear that such punishments were actually carried out in Jesus’ time, but at the very least considerable shame would have been brought on Mary’s family, which was a very serious matter in those days, as the whole social fabric was constructed on the basis of considerations of gaining honour and avoiding shame.
Matthew doesn’t tell us much about Joseph, but there is enough to enable him to enter into our imaginations. We are told he is a righteous man, one who seeks to please God by living according to God’s law. The common understanding at that time would have been that this meant returning Mary to her parents in public disgrace. This would have been the unfortunate consequence of a choice rightfully made to preserve Joseph’s own integrity and that of his family.
Here many English translations can be less than helpful when they choose to say that Joseph was a righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary. I am told that it would better express the sense of it to say but he was unwilling to expose her. Strictly speaking, Joseph’s righteousness on its own might well have led him to expose Mary to public disgrace, but there was more to Joseph than just legalistic observance of the law. Joseph was also a decent, kind and loving man who had discovered mercy in the heart of God. In the set of options he could see that were available to him, quietly dismissing Mary was the merciful choice, though that would still have left her with the awkward business of being pregnant without a husband.
I think that choice for mercy opened Joseph to a deeper encounter with God that showed him even better possibilities and enabled him to respond to their invitation, even though this risked bringing humiliation on himself and irritating his family. There was a lot more going on than perhaps he had been assuming. His life was now part of something much bigger than just himself and his family of origin. His even more radical choice to take Mary without fear into his home as his wife meant that he now had a role to play in the salvation of all people by safeguarding the coming of God into our sadly broken world in a new way. As the story continues, Matthew will tell of several more episodes in which Joseph humbly responds seemingly without drama or fuss to dreams of angels guiding him to take the child and his mother and keep them safe, so that Jesus might live among us as one of us and show in himself that God is with us.
When life comes at us without warning or a chance to prepare ourselves for it, as we daily encounter opportunities to refuse the evil and choose the good, what will help us to recognize which is which and make the better choice, the choice beyond merely following the rules as we understand them? Perhaps it starts with acknowledging that we are called to belong to Jesus Christ and to follow in his way of mercy, making the kindest choice we can and trusting that the even greater way of love will be revealed to us by the angels we quite unexpectedly meet along the way, angels who come in various guises to help us participate in realizing the dream of God for a world free of suffocating sin.