One of the Christmas gifts I received this year was a commentary on Matthew by Craig Keener. Some commentaries on the Bible are complicated and dry but not this one. It reads like a novel and flows from chapter to chapter filled with interesting and exciting insights into the text.
In this blog post I thought I would share with you some of those insights into the birth of Jesus and how that birth played out in the lives of Joseph and Mary.
Keener points out that Joseph was faithful to Mary in advance, awaiting marriage and, of course, he expected the same from her. Matthew is so insistent on this point that he makes sure that we understand that Joseph didn’t have any sexual relationship with her until after Jesus’ birth. “He took his wife but knew her not, until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.” (Matthew 1:24b, 25) This says a great deal about the character of Joseph to control his sexual urges, as he stayed faithful to Mary.
The story of Mary and Joseph when understood in the culture of the time stands our view of divorce on its head. Matthew points out that infidelity is always wrong while divorce under some circumstances is just (See Matthew 5:32). Many of our contemporary pastors believe that divorce under any circumstance is wrong, including cases of abuse, adultery and abandonment. It is important for us to know that in the time of Joseph and Mary, Joseph would have been able to divorce Mary and remarry without any repercussions.
For Joseph to “put Mary away,” (1:19) literally meant to divorce her. The expectations of the community when they found out Mary was pregnant was that Joseph would divorce her. In reality Joseph had no option but to divorce since Roman and Jewish law demanded that he leave her. If a man did not divorce his unfaithful wife then he was labeled a pimp, a man who exploited his wife as a prostitute.
We begin to see the stigma that hung over this little family. Mary was considered a very loose woman, Joseph nothing better than a pimp and Jesus as illegitimate. We also see the character of the people God selected to raise Jesus. Joseph regardless of the stigma, ridicule, gossip and backbiting stayed true to Mary and her son. Mary would always have people whispering about her “miracle” baby behind her back and Jesus would be raised in a village that knew everything about his background and history.
Joseph was caught in a web that wanted to destroy him regardless of his explanations. He was either a pimp who allowed his wife to sleep with other men or there was the option that he got her pregnant before marriage. Either way his reputation was suspect at the least and totally ruined at the worse.
In our understanding of how Joseph handled the situation you have to remember that he probably hardly knew Mary before they were betrothed (engaged). From research into engagements during the 1st century it has been discovered that engaged couples apparently enjoyed no privacy together until the wedding. Joseph had no inherent consciousness to believe Mary or trust her. It would be through a dream that God would make known to Joseph that Mary was carrying the Messiah.
Before leaving this interesting insight into Joseph and his faithfulness in light of the culture and personal reputation, there is a third option regarding Mary’s pregnancy that probably circulated.
If Joseph wasn’t a panderer, and if he didn’t get her pregnant than maybe she got pregnant with someone else behind Joseph’s back. This implication had real repercussions for Joseph’s standing in the community. It somehow insinuated Mary was already unhappy with him even before they married. Thus Joseph would be considered inadequate for her. Also it would speak poorly of Joseph’s family who would have arranged the marriage. They would have been shamed for selecting such a woman for their son and this would reveal that they were poor discerners of character.
Keener writes, “Under these circumstances, Joseph would be righteous in divorcing Mary; to fail to do so would violate law and custom, would bring enduring reproach on his household and would constitute embracing as wife one who had betrayed him in the worst manner conceivable in his culture. Matthew p. 61
It is important for Christian churches to remember that under law Joseph could have and should have divorced Mary but he didn’t. Matthew calls him “righteous”. Yet within the church when people are unfaithful, abusive or abandon their families we somehow try to keep the marriage together. We consider the person who divorces as “unrighteous”. But the reality is that when a person is living in a world of violence, the spouse is committing adultery or has left, the marriage is already broken and we should be supportive of the person. In the church we are good at laying guilt on people and we are very slow to help lift it from burdened shoulders.
The church should never punish the innocent party in a divorce. We need compassion and understanding in our relationships along with justice. Before Joseph knew of the Holy conception of the child he began to plan for divorce but it was quite and without fanfare. He didn’t shame Mary or cause her undo stress. He understood life would be hard and unfair to her and he tried to make everything as easy as possible on her (1:19).
Deuteronomy 22:21-24 demanded that she be stoned but that rule was seldom ever carried out, however she would never be able to marry again and without a husband life was not worth living. In a male orientated society there were few to no options open for a single woman with a child to care for.
Once again we see what a man Joseph is by planning to divorce her on the quiet. If he went to court and made a big deal out of it he might gain some of his reputation back and most certainly he would be able to keep the dowry and probably recoup the bride price from Mary’s family. However, the price for Mary would have been horrendous. Joseph would have to sign the bill of divorce with witnesses as well as have the village scribe and elders confirm the situation in a court of law. All this would have devastated Mary forever within the community.
Keener notes, “Joseph trusted God enough to obey Him. Yet such obedience was costly. Because Joseph married Mary, outsiders would assume that he had gotten her pregnant before the wedding. Joseph would remain an object of shame in a society dominated by the value of honor. This was a stressful way to begin a marriage! By waiting to have intercourse (1:25), hence failing to provide the bloody sheet that would prove Mary’s virginity on the wedding night (Deut. 22:15) Mary and Joseph also chose to embrace shame to preserve the sanctity of God’s call.” Matthew p. 63
We live in a world with little shame and sin is taken for granted. Men walk away from pregnant girlfriends without a backward glance. When we read the story of Mary and Joseph we are seeing into the heart of God and regardless of how the world looks at us, God sees us through the prism of love. The world may destroy our reputation and talk behind our back, make fun of us or dismiss us but when we are faithful to God’s call He stands tall with us. And that is enough.
* The world is paying less and less attention to the persecuted Christians around the world but it’s still happening, perhaps more than ever – they need our support and our prayers. Please take the time each day. Some of their stories can be found at http://thebeggardanced.com/nine-oclock-club/