Christmas Stories: A Righteous Man

Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph couldn’t sleep.

He shut his eyes tighter and willed himself to fall asleep.  He told his body he needed rest, that it wasn’t doing any good to lie awake and worry.  He told himself that everything would be clearer in the morning.

It was no use.  His mind kept playing and replaying the events of earlier that day.

Mary’s father, Joachim, had come over in the morning.  Joseph was in his woodworking shop, already hard at work for the day, sanding down the edges of a table.  He stood when he saw Joachim, who lingered hesitantly in the doorway.  He waved him in.

“It’s good to see you,” he said.  “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Joachim didn’t answer right away.  Joseph saw that he looked tired, maybe worried.

“Is everything OK?”  Joseph asked.

Joachim sighed.  “Joseph,” he said, “I have to tell you something.  Mary is pregnant.”

It took a moment for the words to register.  “Pregnant?” he asked.  Then, as if Joachim was accusing him of something: “But – we haven’t…I haven’t…”

“I know,” said Joachim.

He let the words sit there.  Joseph sat down.

Questions swirled around in his mind.  How could this have happened?  Did Mary love someone else?  Had she wanted to?  Had she not wanted to?  Was she OK?  What now?

He only asked, “But who?”

“I don’t know,” Joachim said.  “She won’t say.  She keeps telling some story about an angel and being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.  That’s all I can get out of her.”

Joseph shook his head.

“Joseph,” said Joachim.  “You’re a righteous man.  I understand if you can’t marry Mary now, under these circumstances.  I know I can’t ask you to do that.  But please, let’s keep things quiet.  Say the engagement is off.  Say you changed your mind.  You know she’ll be in danger if the word gets out.  We all will be.  Please don’t ruin our family.”

“I have to think,” was all Joseph could say.

Joachim looked down and nodded.  He got up and left.  His shoulders slumped as he headed back out the door of the shop.

Joseph continued to sit.  Then, because he didn’t know what else to do, he got back up and started working.  Cutting.  Sanding. Things that made sense.

As the news sunk in Joseph found himself getting angry. He sanded harder.  “Betrayal,” he muttered under his breath.  He pounded his fist against the wall.  “Betrayal!”

“How could this have happened?” he said aloud.  “I’ve always treated her well!  I was going to make her happy!”

Then anger gave way to despair and Joseph wept, seeing his future crumbling in front of him.

Later that night, having yelled and cried and sanded until his hands were raw, Joseph only felt numb.  As he lay in bed sleepless, he kept hearing Joachim’s words replaying over and over in his head.  You’re a righteous man, JosephA righteous man.

He was right, Joseph had always tried to be a righteous man.  He paid his tithe to the Temple, what little he had, and he was always ready to help a neighbor in need.  He kept the Sabbath and went to the synagogue each week for prayers.  He showed hospitality to guests and strangers.  He honored his father and his mother and never took God’s name in vain, and he had always treated Mary and her family with respect.

But those things were easy.  Clear.  Laws for him to follow.  What did it mean to be a righteous man now?

He knew he would be within his rights to ruin Mary, to humiliate her, to make sure she could never get married, and quite possibly none of her sisters could as well.  The law would be on his side.  In fact, according to the law, she could be stoned, though Joseph wouldn’t think of going that far.  Still, Joseph could make sure everyone in town knew what Mary had done, and still be a righteous man.  After all, wasn’t it right and good that she should face the consequences for what she had done?

And what if she hadn’t done it?  What if it hadn’t been her choice?  Joseph rolled over, trying to put that possibility out of his mind as well.

In the end, he knew that a righteous man couldn’t only follow the letter of the law.  A righteous man had to love his neighbor as himself.  And while they weren’t yet married, Joseph did love Mary.  He had always been good to her, and, up until now, she had always been good to him.  Somehow it just didn’t seem right, or righteous, to give Mary and her whole family over to public ruin.  Maybe Joachim was right, and the righteous thing to do was to have mercy, to end things quietly, to shut down the neighborhood gossip as much as it was up to him.  But was that really the righteous thing, either?  What about justice?  What about accountability?  Why should Joseph be the one to bear the burden of this silence?

And yet should Mary have to pay for this mistake for the rest of her life?

But she was pregnant.  There would be no hiding that, not for long.  Joseph knew that Mary would pay, one way or another.  He could only make things better or worse.  He just didn’t know which was which.

Suddenly being righteous seemed a lot less black and white than it always had.

Sometime, in the middle of the night, Joseph finally fell asleep.

First, he dreamed of Mary.  Mary, who in all of this, had never gotten to speak for herself.  “I never betrayed you, Joseph,” she said.  “This baby is from God.  And I know the risk I’m taking.  I’ve accepted it and I don’t expect you to take it with me.  But I want you to know that.”

He woke, and tossed and turned, and fell asleep again.

Then he dreamed an angel came and stood over his bed.  “Joseph,” said the angel.  “Don’t be afraid.  What Mary is telling you is true.  Go ahead and marry her.  You’ll have a son – yes, he’ll be your son.  But he’ll also be God’s, and he’ll save your people from sin.”

The dream seemed so real that Joseph was surprised to wake up.  He shook his head to clear his mind and remembered his dilemma: Mary. Pregnant. Not his.

But at the same time Joseph realized what he had to do.

He didn’t know if the angel was real, or right; if the same angel really had visited Mary or what he had said or if this child really was from God – and if that was the case, he really didn’t know what he was getting into.  What he knew is that this was something bigger than he realized, something more important, and if Mary was willing to risk everything, then so was he.  If Mary was willing to do this alone, whatever this was, then he would do it with her.

Joseph had always followed the rules, and been called a good man for doing so.  But what if, instead of being an end in themselves, those rules had always been shaping him, preparing him, pointing him to something more?

For the moment, Joseph set aside his worries about accountability and consequences and the interplay of justice and mercy.  He was going to take a leap of faith – to bet everything he had on God’s grace and love.  He didn’t know what people would say.  But he knew, even facing this unknown, that he felt more fully alive than he ever had before.

It was early, but Joseph cleaned up, got dressed, and headed to Mary’s house.  Joachim was already out in the yard, feeding the goats.  He looked up as Joseph approached.

“I’m here to marry Mary,” Joseph said.

Joachim smiled.  “I knew you were a righteous man,” he said.

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