“Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.”
Matthew 1:19 (Common English Bible)
Thomas Long taught a three-week class, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew, during the summer of 1992. The first day we were assigned homework that seemed daunting – prepare for the next day a mini-biography of each name in Matthew’s genealogy, which begins his Gospel. Each student worked late into the night in the Princeton Seminary library, occasionally looking-up at one another to gauge one another’s reaction to the surprises we were uncovering. As we proceeded with name after name in the family tree of Jesus Christ, it seemed we were reading the scandal page of one of those sensationalist newspapers found in larger cities. Sprinkled throughout the bloodline of Jesus were checkered people: Rahab, the prostitute, Ruth, that brazen Moabite, and King David himself, father of a son with another man’s wife. Brokenness abounded!
If we are honest, many of our families are much like Jesus’ family. Sprinkled throughout our bloodline are scandals, betrayal, addictions, and moral failure. My paternal grandmother was an alcoholic, who lost her marriage due to her addiction, my father, as a teenager, attempted suicide as a result of a mother who couldn’t raise him and a stepmother, who wouldn’t, and, eventually, was raised by a grandmother. My mother’s father abandoned a wife and children to begin another family that she would become part of and mental health issues – including a struggle with depression – etched its mark upon both her and her brother. Most of my life I have struggled with depression. Brokenness is an unwelcomed guest that many of our families are familiar with. The common challenge is to overcome our embarrassment and to look for God’s wondrous power to transform each one of us.
Joseph struggled as we do. He is engaged to Mary and had reason to believe that the wedding would proceed according to the tradition and custom of his Jewish faith tradition. Then, Mary is pregnant with a child that is not his. Soon, Mary would be showing. Careful wedding plans have now gone awry. Joseph must have felt betrayal, embarrassment, and anger. What is he to do? On one hand, Joseph, being a righteous man, could not tolerate his fiancée’s apparent infidelity. The law and personal honor demanded that he break-off the engagement. There seemed to be no other option. On the other hand, Joseph loved Mary and could not imagine her suffering the indignity and ridicule that would be hers by a public separation on the charge of infidelity. So what does Joseph do? A quiet separation would protect both Mary’s welfare and Joseph’s honor.
Then, God gives Joseph a new commandment, “a new and higher law,” writes Thomas Long, that required “a new and higher righteousness”: “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit.”[i] Here was an invitation to shatter the confines of a law absent of grace and become a genuinely righteous man that moves toward others, including his fiancée, with embracing love. Rigid obedience to the law cannot and should not stand in the way of God’s mercy. In the chancel of First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach is a beautiful stained-glass window. Someone in worship once commented to me that the beauty of that window provided comfort each week. Yet, one must not overlook that the beauty of that window is created from shards of broken glass painstakingly reassembled by the hand of a master artist.
[i] Matthew G. Long, Matthew, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Know Press, 1997) 13.