“When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.”
Today we hear of Joseph as he confronts fear, doubt, and a decision about right and wrong.
The Gospel tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. Now, being ‘righteous’ or ‘just’ as an observant Jew meant that Joseph followed, lived, and abided by the law.
The law laid out the penalty for pre-marital sex and adultery. It was death for both the woman and man involved. Leviticus 20:10 states: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” Deuteronomy 22:22 states: “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.”
Since Joseph and Mary were engaged, Mary was legally Joseph’s wife. Mary was obviously pregnant – so in everyone’s mind she was an adulteress. By law Joseph could denounce Mary and she would be stoned to death. Joseph would cast first stone.
Joseph is shamed by Mary’s pregnancy. Joseph went home to think this all over. We can imagine his thoughts, the stress, the anger, the shame, and the hurt. What should he do? The law says put her to death, get revenge, and purify the community. What would happen if he didn’t follow the law?
Before his adopted Son would ever proclaim the value of forgiveness, before Jesus would say, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” or “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” Joseph acted with true righteousness. Amidst the hurt, pain, and conflict Joseph decided against death. He would arrange a no-fault divorce, without admitting or denying paternity of child. This would save Mary’s life.
God would intervene through His angel to give Joseph all of the facts – that there is no human father for Jesus. More importantly, Joseph provides us with an example of true righteousness. This is the kind of righteousness we are called to live.
Death is the penalty for sin. Thankfully, through Jesus’ coming, we have been freed from death. Being freed, Jesus asks us to free others from death. This is not the literal death of the Old Testament imposed by stoning, but the sort of death we impose if we harden our hearts to those who have hurt us.
As Joseph chose true righteousness so must we. When we do, when we forgive as we are forgiven, when we free as we have been freed, we overcome death by love.