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. (Matthew 1.19)
We’ve got so comfortable discussing sex, marriage, and pregnancy we forget as late as the 1960’s, they weren’t appropriate topics for casual conversation. Sex stayed off the table entirely, while marriage and pregnancy only got mentioned when they were happy news—meaning, in mutual context. Divorces were like deaths. Unfaithful spouses were shunned as if they were murderers. Living in misery for the sake of the children—many of whom were badly scarred by anger and violence that attended “sticking it out”—was viewed as the best thing to do. Unwed pregnancies shocked everyone. Most middle- and upper-class single women who conceived quietly surrendered their babies for adoption to spare their family’s disgrace. (That is, if they didn’t pay a discrete visit to a trusted gynecologist, a luxury seldom available to lower-class unwed mothers, who had little choice but to raise their children on their own.) Couples cohabiting without marriage licenses were dismissed as morally reckless. If they brought children into the world without marrying, they were vilified all the more.
If this reads like ancient history, that’s because it is. Though methods and morals of marital relations, along with childbearing, have waxed and waned across time, it’s only very recently that society as a whole has taken a more liberal view. (That’s why two of English’s most inflammatory castigations refer to children born out of wedlock.) Reading the Christmas accounts, cross-referencing Matthew’s telling from Joseph’s perspective with Luke’s version from Mary’s, we’re jolted by the intense pressure they’re under from the first. Honoring custom, their marriage contract has been formalized, the dowry negotiated, and their union announced. We now call this “engagement to marry,” though reasons for the delay have got lost. In Mary and Joseph’s time publishing banns (as the practice eventually was called) gives time for anyone to disclose information that might nullify the union after consummation. Grounds include: prior sexual activity, previous marriages not yet dissolved, hereditary illnesses, and legally prohibited degrees of kinship.
Ancient communities adopt such policies to protect their interests. If new facts void a marital contract after sexual union, the divorcée and children become social outcasts andburdens. To preempt future scandal from this, families do thorough background checks before entering into the contract. Publishing it seals the deal, with the couple named husband and wife before living and sleeping together. Sex is forbidden to bar status changes during the wait. Non-compliant couples face fornication charges. Straying partners risk adultery convictions. Under Mosaic Law, both are capital offenses. So when Mary finds out she’s pregnant without her consent—a little detail we don’t dare mention—and Joseph learns of it, they realize they’re fodder for deadly serious scandal. Mary’s benefitted from discussing the situation with God’s messenger; her response is tempered by resolute faith. Her husband isn’t as fortunate.
Joseph’s first impulse urges him to take the most legally prudent route. But it’s an impossible dilemma forcing him to choose where his heart lies. Matthew 1.19 spells it out beautifully: “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.” That is, he decides to obey his community and religion’s rules by discretely severing the marriage contract before Mary’s pregnancy becomes obvious. That frees her to disappear—possibly returning to Jerusalem to live with her cousin, Elizabeth, and raise her Child there. If all goes well, the couple will escape scandal and legal action they’d inevitably confront in Nazareth. It’s a smart plan. But it’s not a safe one, because it’s not God’s plan. To paraphrase a thrilling observation my pastor made in last Sunday, by design, God hands Joseph a scandalous situation and dispatches an angel instructing him to face the scandal with Mary and choose to protect someone beside himself. “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife,” the angel says, “because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (v20)
The Big Difference
That’s the big difference between Mary and Joseph. She has no choice. He does. Christ’s presence in his life hinges on courage to confront scandal and placing Mary’s welfare above his own. He says “no” to fear. He says “no” to pressure. He says “no” to the Law! Telling them “no” is how he tells God, “Yes.” And his willingness to confront scandal is essential here, because scandal will follow Jesus from manger to tomb. Based on this tiny glimpse of Joseph’s character, can we doubt Jesus is also his Son? God chooses Joseph as Christ’s earthly role model in full confidence he’ll make influential choices.
From what we see in Joseph and the Babe he raises to adulthood, by its very nature, a Christ-led life is scandalous. If that doesn’t shock us, perhaps we’re not aware how often fear, pressure, and accepted rules decide our actions. What seems smart isn’t always safe, because our wisdom typically lacks courage and puts self-interests first. That’s not what God wants. It’s not what Christ teaches. It’s not what Jesus exemplifies. So we’re subject to derision in communities where logic ridicules faith. So? So religionists bellow when we defy their rules and say yes to God. So? So determination to house Christ in our hearts, nurturing Christ’s presence in our thoughts and actions, raises suspicions and threats of rejection. So? The Babe conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit is the Christ conceived in us. This thing is bigger than we realize—too holy to hide, too daring for discretion, too wonderful to worry with human rules. If dreading scandal sends us packing, we haven’t fully embraced God’s purpose and power in our lives. Face scandals. Don’t be afraid. Choose right. Say “Yes!”
Saying no to fear, pressure, and manmade rules is how we tell God, “Yes!”
Postscript: “Trading My Sorrows”
Oh my, talk about scandal! I’m about to embed a John Tesh video into this post! But go with me on this. When you hear the refrain, I’m sure you’ll get it. Saying “yes” should swing wide huge windows of joy in our spirits. And indeed it does.