He was a faithful Jewish man from a little town of Nazareth, engaged to a faithful Jewish woman. She was a graceful and humble young woman. She was shocked to hear from an angel that she would bear the child who would be the Messiah. Not only was she a nobody in the world, but she was a virgin, and would not marry for several months. Conception was impossible! What if people thought she had betrayed her fiancé, or slept with him before the wedding? But the Spirit would be upon her, God would protect her, and the Son would be born trough her.
Did Joseph believe Mary’s story? He may or may not have even known or understood what was fully going on at first, and engaged couples were typically forbidden from seeing each other alone in this culture. But when Joseph heard word she was pregnant, from her or her family, he was no doubt incredibly upset. Wasn’t she a good girl? Hadn’t she protected her chastity for him, as he had for her? Hadn’t their betrothal been blessed by God?
Joseph had options:
- Have her stoned outright. She committed fornication, and since they were engaged, it was practically like adultery.
- He could have put her away publicly. If she had cheated on their contract he could have shamed her for the embarrassment he put her through.
- He could have put her away privately. This could be done if he decided not to carry through with the marriage but wanted to spare her the shame, leave it only to gossip and whispers.
- He could have married her anyway. Maybe she was the best he could get. Maybe he could forgive her violation and live with her.
“Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” As far as we know, Joseph gave no serious thought to stoning or public divorce. For that, we can praise him for his virtue and grace. Even what could be argued was his right as a covenant Hebrew he dismissed in the name of kindness and grace. As a man of faith, like the faith of Abraham, he served the Spirit of the Law as well as the letter of the law, his heart aiming not merely to how the law could serve him, but how the greatest commandments could be served.
Why does he settle on the option of putting her away privately, rather than marry her anyway? Maybe he doubted her testimony of the angel. Maybe he believed her testimony but knew that others would doubt and mock them all their lives. Maybe he believed her testimony and thought himself too lowly to father the Messiah. Maybe he misunderstood and thought his wife and child would live a temple life. We do not know. I wonder sometimes if it is because Joseph’s heart, while aiming true, was not perfect, and needed the Spirit to guide him to a more complete love, one that is risky, self-sacrificing, and even more faithful.
What we do know is that this man’s heart was rent with the pain of having to make an uncomfortable decision no matter what. I give Joseph the benefit of the doubt for choosing an option that considered his finance’s future. He prayed on it and prayed on it until the angel spoke to him:
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.”
Joseph listened to and believed this angel. The Spirit intervened to produce even more grace than he originally offered his fiancé. He would marry her, despite the gossip and the doubt, because Mary was innocent, because God believed Joseph could be a good father, because this was the Messiah.
Months later, Joseph and Mary would undergo quite an embarrassing ordeal. in a small, roughly furnished room in a small rural town where all the inns were full, this man and his wife would huddle together, preparing for the coming of a child conceived out of wedlock. On the outside, we may forget what a scandal this would appear to be. This was the kind of thing Joseph did not sign up for. He didn’t make a contract with any angel before his betrothal asking to wind up here. But as a faithful Hebrew, Joseph was hoping for the Messiah, and deep down, like most Hebrew men, he hoped that the Messiah could possible come from his line, even his own family.
I believe Joseph’s heart prepared for a gesture of great mercy. I believe that it is the hand of God, through the message of an angel and the beginning of this great Gospel, that Joseph’s faith was made more perfect. I’m also very certain his wonderful bride played an integral role in it too. Imagine how she felt. Then, imagine the joy when she knew, this would be the Son of God.