By rights, Mary should have been executed. If a man takes a woman for his wife and discovers that she is not a virgin “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 an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.” Mary, having been betrothed to Joseph was found to be with child, and Joseph had every right to have her killed. But Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
In fact, Joseph does everything quietly. He is mentioned in all four gospels, but not once does he speak a word:
- In a dream, an angel says “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” and he quietly obeys.
- In a dream, an angel says “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt . . . for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him. So [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.”
- In a dream, an angel says, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” So [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.”
Quiet obedience might be Joseph’s most distinguishing characteristic. But if we leave it at that, we greatly underestimate him. He was a righteous man, meaning he obeyed the law of Moses. But his righteousness went deeper than the letter of the law, for he looked into the law and looked into his betrothed, and determined that he was answerable to a more perfect law than the law of Moses. He looked as one of his other sons, James the brother of Jesus teaches: “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers . . . [for] those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere . . . they will be blessed in their doing.” I wonder where James learned that? Maybe he learned it not only from his brother Jesus, but also from his father, Joseph. Maybe Joseph’s most distinguishing characteristic is not obedience, but a liberating, courageous, and abiding love.
Love is the more perfect law that gives Joseph the liberty to choose mercy over righteousness. Love is the more perfect law that gives Joseph the courage to go through with his marriage and take Mary’s shame upon himself. Love is the more perfect law that gives Joseph the perseverance to flee his home, protect and raise the child as his own, to teach him his trade, and . . . in the end . . . to liberate that child to take up a new calling to obey a more perfect law.
Someone once asked Jesus, “‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ [Jesus] said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’” One of these laws is Deuteronomy 6:5 and the other is Leviticus 19:18. Of course, at the time, there was no “New Testament.” There was only the “Old Testament” and so that was what Jesus quoted when he chose these two Bible verses to name as the greatest. If I were ever asked the same question, I think I would choose three verses:
- 1 John 4:9: God is love.
- John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotton son.
- 1 John 4:12: If we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.
God is love. God loves the world. Love one another. In fact, “Love one another” is the “new commandment” that Jesus gives his disciples on the night before he is betrayed, arrested, and killed. Love is that more perfect law that gives Jesus the liberty to welcome outcasts and sinners. Love is that more perfect law that gives Jesus the courage to drink the cup of suffering and take our sins upon himself. Love is that more perfect law that gives Jesus the perseverance to stand fast under trial and persecution, to trust that his heavenly father will raise him to new life, to teach us how to love, and . . . in the end . . . to liberate from the sin and death so that we can take up our calling to obey that more perfect law.
Love. That is the great gift of Joseph and the gift that we are invited to receive when we receive the Christ Child. May we too receive it and obey it freely, courageously, and with perseverance. Amen.