Matthew 1:18-25 December 18, 2022
There is one value in this life that trumps righteousness, and that is love.
It sounds like a line from any one of several Hollywood romantic comedies: “Joseph ... do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”
“Don’t be afraid to get married.” It’s a theme of many a movie, sure enough. Aging, successful urban professional has an active social life, but just can’t seem to settle down with any one woman. Some of the women he’s dated get together down at the Starbucks and trade war stories about him: “That Joseph, you know, he’s a looker, but there’s just one problem with him. He’s got a bad case of ‘FTC’: failure to commit.”
In the Hollywood movie, what usually happens is the indecisive hero gets involved with a woman he can’t stand, then they develop a love-hate relationship that finally transforms itself into real affection. They get engaged but call the wedding off because of a misunderstanding. Then, at the last minute, everything gets cleared up and the wedding comes off after all, in some unconventional Hollywood way. Sounds like a perfect date movie, right?
Is that what happened in Nazareth long ago? Is that what the angel’s talking about when he says to Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife”? Does Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, demonstrate a failure to commit?
Hardly. We know very little about Joseph — the biblical account is sparse — but what it does tell us is that he was “a righteous man.” In the Hebrew, the word is tsaddiq. A tsaddiq is a holy man, a paragon of public virtue. If a tsaddiq made a business agreement with you, no written contract was necessary; his word was all you needed. If you were going away on a long journey and you had to leave a sack of money behind for safekeeping, a tsaddiq was the man you wanted to look after it; you could count on every shekel being there upon your return. As a tsaddiq, Joseph would hardly have been one to “play the field,” to dither around trying to decide which woman he wanted to marry.
Nobody, back then, decided whom they were going to marry anyway. Marriages were arranged — a contract between the bride’s and the groom’s families. That sounds foreign to our ears, but that’s how it was. In the best, most loving families, the children were probably consulted — after the choice had already been made for them — so they might have an opportunity to voice any serious objections. But this rarely happened. If you were a tsaddiq, a righteous person, you assumed your parents knew you best and had chosen well for you. As for that stranger you were marrying, the two of you would learn to love each other in time.
There’s an old tradition in the church that says Joseph was a good deal older than Mary, possibly even middle-aged. The Bible, in fact, tells us nothing about Joseph’s age. This is pure assumption since Joseph walks right out of the biblical narrative after that incident in the temple when Jesus was 12 and is never heard from again. He must have died before Jesus reached adulthood, but that could have happened for any number of reasons besides old age. More likely, Joseph was just a few years older than Mary — old enough to have established himself in his profession and to have gained that reputation as a righteous man — but by no means belonging to another generation.
So, what is it that would lead a tsaddiq, a righteous man, to overthrow his parents’ wishes and abandon a marriage contract already made? Only the direst of circumstances — which is, in fact, exactly what happened.
Joseph and Mary were in a period of betrothal — contracted to one another, but not actually married. They did not live together. As a tsaddiq, Joseph knew he had held up his end of the bargain, remaining faithful to his intended bride. But the gradual thickening of Mary’s abdomen told a different tale. It appeared, to him and to all the world, that Mary had been unfaithful.
Had this been true, the ramifications would have been huge. Because a marriage contract in that culture was an agreement not just between two people, but between two families, Mary’s family would have been publicly disgraced, and Joseph’s would have had grounds to shun them. In a village culture, this could have resulted in a feud that went on for generations.
As for Mary, her situation was even more desperate. According to the law of Israel, expressed in the book of Deuteronomy, Mary could have been stoned to death for adultery. All it would have taken was a public denunciation by Joseph. The news of her pregnancy meant he held power of life or death over her. Had Joseph been a vengeful sort of person, he could have had vengeance aplenty.
But Joseph was a righteous man. That means his ideal was justice tempered with mercy. He would have found no joy at the sight of Mary’s blood on the cobblestones, only an abiding horror. And so, he resolved to do the truly righteous thing, the kind thing. He would “divorce her quietly.” No public denunciation in the synagogue. Just a quiet conversation with the rabbi, who would perhaps produce a few coins so Mary could go away for a time, to a distant village, and deliver her child in obscurity.
Should this happen, the life ahead for Joseph’s erstwhile fiancée would be a grim one. She might never return to Nazareth again — and if she did, she’d probably eke out a hardscrabble livelihood as a household servant.
It turns out, of course, that Joseph is more than merely righteous, and more than merely merciful. He’s also a man who pays attention to dreams. In that famous dream of his, an angel comes to him, explaining that Mary is with child by the Holy Spirit. This child she is carrying is destined to be the salvation of Israel. “Do not be afraid, Joseph. Do not be afraid.”
The fact that the angel says this shows that Joseph is afraid. What is it he could be afraid of?
First, he’s probably afraid it could happen again. If Mary has indeed been unfaithful to him, who’s to say she won’t do so again? Will he ever be able to trust her?
Second, this child growing within her is not his — of that, he’s certain. Will he ever be able to love it? Will he forever after looking at the child’s hair color, eyes and physical build and wonder which other man in the village is the real father?
Third, there’s the matter of public disgrace. Had Mary and Joseph broken the celibacy of their betrothal, her pregnancy would have been an embarrassment perhaps, but no terrible scandal. Had Joseph been the father of the child, he would have had to endure some back-slapping, good-natured ridicule from the other men of the village. The marriage date would have been hastily moved up, and it might have been a very long time indeed before he could look Mary’s father in the eye. But they would have gotten over all that, eventually. Surely, they wouldn’t have been the first betrothed couple to have had to endure such an ordeal.
But the child is not his. How can he possibly go through with it? How can he expect any good to come out of such a deeply flawed marriage?
Until he hears the full story from the angel, Joseph is afraid to love. He’s afraid the love he’s begun to feel for Mary isn’t strong enough to triumph over the fear, the anger, the embarrassment. For what is love, anyway, but a weak, pathetic emotion? Better to hide that love away. Better to save it for someone else. Better to take refuge in the law instead. The law will never let you down the way a lover will. Cold, reliable, unchanging: that’s the law. Fickle human relationships may change, but the law of God is always and everywhere the same.
Let me tell you something, though, about righteousness. It won’t keep you warm at night. It won’t take care of you when you’re sick. It won’t laugh with you, or cry with you, or listen to your dreams. When you look at your partner, or your spouse, or your family member, or your good friend, and you see all those flaws and imperfections — so familiar to you that you can tote them up with ease — it may make you feel righteous by comparison. But it will do nothing to help you feel loved.
We all know of some bitter marriages that are so wrapped up in a quest for righteousness that they’ve left love behind in the dust. These are the relationships where each partner is contending to be “holier than thou.” They bicker constantly, mostly about who’s right and who’s wrong. There’s plenty of scorekeeping in that kind of marriage.
In other marriages, exclusive victory in the righteousness contest has long since been claimed by one of the partners. Usually this is a relationship in which one partner has committed some terrible sin — an affair, perhaps — or has some relationship-killing problem — maybe an addiction to drugs or alcohol. The couple has dealt with the situation, after a fashion. They’ve put the immediate pain behind them. But there’s been no real forgiveness. One partner feels deeply wounded, and the other just feels grateful the marriage didn’t collapse. Righteousness has become like a dividing wall between them. As for love, it’s hard for that fragile flower to flourish in the shadow formed by such a high wall.
We usually think of righteousness as a good thing, but there are times when it can take on a life of its own, edging out a value like love, which is even more important. Which is of greater value in a human relationship — always to be right, or always to be loving? I think we all know the answer to that one.
Joseph’s decision to choose Mary — despite the visible roundness of her belly — is a triumph of love over righteousness. He doesn’t “dismiss her quietly.” Being a deeply loving man, he abandons that idea and decides to accept her anyway, just as she is — and to raise that baby as though he were his own.
Joseph gave up his righteousness, his precious reputation as a tsaddiq, for the sake of his beloved Mary and the child in her womb. Because he did, the world received the greatest Christmas present ever given.
May this Christmas be, for all of us, a time of giving in just the same way: a time for giving the precious, priceless gift of love!