What would you have done if you were in Joseph’s situation? What would you have done if you had been betrothed to Mary ever since the two of you were children and your parents had entered into a marriage contract? What would you have done if your marriage feast was quickly approaching and you suddenly found out Mary had been unfaithful? Not only had she been unfaithful, but she was pregnant with another man’s baby!
Of course, you and I know there was much more to the story. The Virgin Mary was given a child by the Spirit of God, but Joseph did not know that at first. Initially, he only had half the story. So as he saw it, he had two options: (1) divorce Mary publicly, or (2) divorce her quietly. What would you have done?
Keep in mind that Matthew expressly calls Joseph righteous (Matthew 1:19). This is the first and only trait we learn about him at this point, and it is significant. Being declared righteous in the Bible was not a mere compliment. It put Joseph in the rarefied company of Abraham, Noah, and David. It meant, among other things, that Joseph was obedient to God’s law.
Now God’s law, in this case, required capital punishment for Mary (Deuteronomy 22:23-27)! By Joseph’s time, the rabbis had mitigated this punishment to a severe public shaming. Nevertheless, to be righteous was to follow God’s law, and that law called for divorce. Thus, Matthew’s first readers expected Joseph to take one of these two divorce options.
However, the story takes a decisive turn. An angel visited Joseph in a dream and told him not to be afraid to take a third option: to take Mary as his wife. This might actually have been seen as unrighteous by Joseph’s community; but righteousness meant obeying God, and God had given Joseph a new directive. So Joseph “did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife” (Matthew 1:24).
Joseph and Mary were not porcelain figurines in a crèche or images in a stained glass window. They were real people with real problems caught up in a family drama that was not of their own making. They had to make difficult decisions in their family lives, decisions those around them probably did not fully understand or accept.
So as we gather with loved ones for Christmas, let us be reminded that our families have their own dramas, expectations, and varying definitions of righteousness, too. We all have difficult decisions to make in this life, and we sometimes hear God differently. Yet God will come to us in our complicated lives. The Emmanuel will be born into families like ours, by the Holy Spirit.
Taylor Mills is a United Methodist pastor who has led churches in Williamston, Raleigh, and Durham, NC. Currently, he is the pastor of Ann Street United Methodist Church in Beaufort. He and his wife Betsy, who works in the school system, try to keep up with their two teenage daughters.