Author: Rev. Neil Gately, Advisory Board Member, Mainstream UMC
I have served as a pastor in The United Methodist Church for over three decades, yet I still find new inspiration in the same scriptures that are read and preached year after year. I am always impressed by the faithfulness of the individuals in the Christmas story. Mary’s response to the angel is resolute, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Elizabeth and her unborn child are physically moved by Mary’s greeting. The inn keeper thinks outside the box and finds a way to provide shelter. The shepherds leave their flocks. The magi, albeit much later, leave their homeland. Simeon and Anna offer praise to God and proclaim that salvation is at hand.
This year I am particularly drawn to the story of Joseph.
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” – Matthew 1:18-19
I don’t suggest that the actions of Joseph are in some way superior to the steadfast faith of Mary. Mary literally risked everything by agreeing to carry the Messiah. The thing that strikes me in Joseph’s story is the fact that he is described as “righteous.” The Merriam-Webster definition of righteousness is, “Acting in accord with divine or moral law.” In the Bible the term is used in conjunction with words like “blameless,” “justice,” “cleanness,” “uprightness,” “integrity,” “wisdom” “gracious,” “merciful,” “goodness,” “equity,” “holiness,” “faithful and true.” (Gen 6:9, Gen 18:19, 2 Sam 22:21, 1 Kings 3:6, Ps 7:8, Ps 37:30, Ps 112:4, Ps 145:7, Prov 2:9, Eph 4:24, Rev 19:11) Righteousness is a continual theme throughout scripture, literally from Genesis to Revelation.
In refusing to subject Mary to public disgrace, isn’t Joseph refusing to follow the law? How can Joseph be righteous if he is not acting in accordance with divine law? Remember, he has not yet learned that the child is from the Holy Spirit. If Joseph is truly a righteous man, wouldn’t he adhere to the requirement that Mary be punished for the good of the community?
“If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So, you shall purge the evil from your midst.” – Deuteronomy 22:23-24
Clearly Mary must be stoned. The law demands her execution. The quote above leaves no room for doubt. “You shall… stone them to death,” and “You shall purge the evil from your midst.” Joseph can’t possibly be righteous while ignoring the law, unless there is a righteousness that supersedes the written law. The Gospels and Epistles tell us over and over again that love is the fulfilling of the law. (Matt 22, Mark 12, Luke 10, John 13-15, Rom 13, 1 Cor 13, Gal 5, Jas 2…) By choosing grace and love, Joseph fulfills the law rather than following the letter of the law. He is a not righteous man in spite of offering grace. To the contrary, he offers grace because he is righteous.
There are many issues behind the current divide in our denomination, but it largely comes down to the struggle between law and grace. Some of us are right, some of us are wrong, and ultimately the day will come when we learn which of our actions were truly righteous and which of our well-intentioned choices actually distanced us from the divine. When that day comes, I prefer to explain why I may have been too gracious and included too many rather than justifying who I excluded in the name of the law.
As we eagerly wait to celebrate the birth of the Lord of Love, I pray that we might all learn from the example of Joseph – if in doubt, and even if we think that there is no room for uncertainty, always err on the side of grace and love, because love is the fulfilling of the law.
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.
-Christina Rossetti, #242, United Methodist Hymnal