Joseph is not a dominant figure in the nativity stories, but in Matthew’s story of his encounter with the angel (1:18-25), he functions as a kind of model for each of us.
Consider how Joseph responded when he discovered that the wife he was pledged too was pregnant, and of course he assumed she had been unfaithful. The text says that Joseph “being a righteous man [or just man] and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” What does the text mean when it says that Joseph was “a righteous [or just] man”? For the scribes and Pharisees and other devout persons in that day it would have meant that Joseph kept and obeyed the law of God, just as for many Christians today being righteous or just is understood as obeying scripture. But is doing what the Bible says always the will of God?
What does the Bible tell Joseph to do? In Deuteronomy 22:21 the law says quite specifically what to do regarding a woman who has been found to be unfaithful: “She shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house.” That’s what the Bible says. The Jews under Roman rule did not have the authority to carry out capital punishment, but Joseph could have made life extremely difficult for Mary. But Matthew says that because Joseph was “a righteous man” he wanted to handle this quietly so as not to bring public shame and disgrace to Mary. In other words, because he was a righteous person he decided not to obey the Scripture that judged and condemned her.
In one of Richard Rohr’s daily meditations recently he wrote: “God restores rather than punishes, which is a much higher notion of how things are ‘justified’ before God. The full and final biblical message is restorative justice, but most of history has only been able to understand retributive justice. Now, I know you’re probably thinking of many passages in the Old Testament that sure sound like serious retribution. And I can’t deny there are numerous black and white, vengeful scriptures, which is precisely why we must recognize that all scriptures are not equally inspired or from the same level of consciousness.”
A favorite preacher of many preachers is the late Fred Craddock. Dr. Craddock was a New Testament scholar and homiletician who taught aspiring ministers how to both read their New Testaments and preach. In a sermon on this very text Dr. Craddock says: “Joseph is a good man, and he rises to a point that is absolutely remarkable for his day and time. He loves his Bible and knows his Bible and bless his heart for it. But he reads his Bible through a certain kind of lens, the lens of the character and nature of a God who is loving and kind. Therefore he says, ‘I will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, shame her, ridicule her, or demean her value, her dignity, or her worth. I will protect her.’” Craddock then asks: “Where does it say that, Joseph? In your Bible? I’ll tell you where is says that. It says that in the very nature and character of God.”
What is Dr. Craddock saying? He is saying that the Bible doesn’t always give us a reliable picture of the true nature and character of God. Certainly there are texts that are highly enlightened and reflect the highest level of human consciousness, but there are others texts which are more deeply entrenched within the biases of their culture.
Who was Joseph listening to? He was listening to the God who was with him. He was listening to the God he had come to personally know and experience. Joseph decided not to listen to the scripture that said to stone Mary so that instead he could listen to the voice of divine mercy and grace.
In Nazi Germany a Jewish fugitive fleeing for his life came to a small town. He sought out the house of the Christian pastor, hoping to find refuge. He knocked on the door and when the pastor opened it, he told his story and asked if he could stay a few days until it was safe to travel again. The pastor invited him to step inside and wait. The pastor knew that if this young man was caught hiding there the whole town would be held accountable and suffer greatly. So immediately he withdrew to his prayer room and closed the door. He asked God for guidance and then opened his Bible. He happened to come upon the verse in John’s Gospel that says, “It is better for one man to die, than for the whole people to parish.” He knew he had his answer. So he sent the man away. Later that night an angel appeared and asked, “Where is the fugitive?” The pastor said, “I sent him away as the Holy Book instructed me.” The angel said, “Did you not know that he was the Christ? If you would have looked into his eyes, instead of first running to the Book, you would have known.”
If we will look into the face of Jesus to see what God is like we would realize that God always prefers mercy to judgment, that God is always more interested in inclusion than exclusion, that in God’s world human need always take precedence over some legal code or law.
Or if we would just look into the faces of our sisters and brothers all around us we could see the longing and heart of God. We can look into the faces of the sick and grieving and see God’s longing for a world where sickness and disease or some other kind of human suffering cannot snatch away a child or loved one in the prime of life. We can look into the faces of the destitute and see God’s longing for a world where everyone has enough to thrive, not just survive, a world where one group is not allowed to lord it over another group or have too much when another group has so little. We can look into the faces of those put down and demeaned and we can see God’s longing for a world that puts an end to all the marginalization and condemnation of other religions and races. We can look into the faces of the impoverished and displaced and those dying from explosions and gun fire and see God’s longing for a world free of poverty and war.
Joseph did not first rely on his Bible to discern the will of God. And his son Jesus followed his example. Joseph and Jesus relied on their own inner authority — their experience of the Father/Mother/Spirit — the ultimate source of love and grace. Joseph and Jesus brought their experience and understanding of God to bear on their interpretation and application of scripture. Since we are followers of Jesus we should do the same.