This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
Matthew 1:18-19 New Living Translation
Among the characters who are in the story of Jesus’ birth, Joseph is the one that often gets overlooked more than the others. He’s like the third percussionist in a high school band. He’s there and you know he’s there because he plays his instrument every once in a while. Still, he rarely gets as much notice as the other members of the band. The Matthew account of the story gives us a little more of how God was working in Joseph’s life during this time. Perhaps because of the Jewish audience, Matthew was writing to, he felt that the rights and responsibilities of the man in Jewish engagement customs needed to be addressed.
From Matthew’s account, we get an image of Joseph being a quiet and humble man who truly loved his fiancee, Mary. According to the Jewish custom of the day, an engaged couple was under the same relational restrictions as a married couple except that their relationship had not been consummated, yet. Breaking off the engagement at this point could only be done via divorce and unfaithfulness was one of the few circumstances where that was permissible. When marry had been found out to be expecting a child, the natural assumption for Joseph was that she had been unfaithful to him and thus broken the covenant of their engagement. He had the right to put Mary through the embarrassment of a public divorce in front of the whole village. Joseph planned to pursue the more private option in order to shield Mary from public shame.
Though we don’t hear much about Joseph beyond the nativity narratives, he would have an important role in Jesus’ formative years as His earthly mentor of what it meant to be a human male. What we see in these few sentences is a man who cared about doing what was right but who also had a great amount of grace and compassion for his fellow sojourners in this earthly journey, even when he would have been experiencing hurt. Joseph illustrated the type of person Jesus would be as he carried out His mission living among humanity.
The example of Joseph is a great example for us today. We walk in a society where many are broken, wounded, and vulnerable. Many times those wounds are self-inflicted and it’s easy to just shame others publicly for their misdeeds. Like Joseph, though, we have the option to deal with others in a more private manner while still holding fast to a commitment to live righteously. When we follow the example of Joseph, we follow a path that can bring redemptive justice into our world.
God, help us to remember that we are all in need of grace. In those times when we have the right to shame others, give us the grace to look out for their redemption as much as our own justice.