I was reading the account of the Nativity of Christ this morning when something caught my attention:
Matthew 1:18 “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. 19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily.”
Joseph and Mary were espoused, that is, they were married, even though it was understood that there would be no marital embrace between them. Mary was a Temple Virgin, consecrated to the service of God from a very early age. Nonetheless, there was a marriage, for the purpose of Joseph’s support of Mary in the Temple, and sex outside of this bond of marriage was not only adultery, but also would have broken the vows of chastity which Mary took at a tender age.
Joseph is called “a just man,” even though he did not follow the law regarding those caught in sin. Imagine the duress he must have been under! Who did this? What do I do now? I am sure that he being a just man, had a chaste love for and devotion to the one who had consecrated Herself to God? The time spent ruminating on all this before the angel came and give him full information must have been agonizing. He finally decides he will put her away without fanfare.
He has broken the law.
From the Jewish Encyclopedia online:
“Fornication is the same in Jewish as in the common law. It is a much lighter offense than Adultery or Incest, in which both participants are punished with death.”
The demand of the law would be that Mary would be exposed publicly, and if found guilty, put to death by stoning. Yet Joseph, after long consideration of this possibility, and no doubt much confusion of mind and agony of heart, decides he will quietly put her away. Perhaps he reasoned that she would excuse herself from the Temple and return to her family, begging them to take her in. Whatever his thought, he felt that this was the best thing to do instead of keeping the Law of God as prescribed in the Torah.
So he breaks the law and God views him as righteous.
Here is my thought on this Christmas morning. Joseph acts in love and good faith, choosing the best course he can figure out in his lack of full knowledge of the events that are yet to take place in God’s will. He is not privy to the councils of God, he has not been given a revelation of the yet-to-come virgin birth. He is doing the best he can under the limitations of his humanity and lack of knowledge. But it is the action of love which stood out to me in opposition to the slavish following of the Law of God, which was paramount in the mind of a devoted Jew. It is love, that is, taking an action which is more inclined to the best interest of the other – in this case the Theotokos – rather than a strict following of the law, fearing that if he didn’t God would reach down from heaven and smack the hell out of him with some plague, pestilence, or death. You know, kind of like the God that some Christians present when you don’t go along with dotting every theological “I” and crossing every “T” just the way they do.
Christianity is filled with people who are like this – harsh, judgmental of everyone who is not in their camp, and ready to send them to hell at the drop of a biblical interpretation. I know this all too well because, much to my deep shame and embarrassment, I was one of them for a long time. I received a thorough training in this from the Bob Jones Fundamentalists whose churches I attended for 12 years, followed by another deep dose from PCA Calvinism, that wonderful religion which claims that God created sentient beings only to damn them forever for no reason other than His good pleasure. Their every understanding of God rests in this presupposition – that God is angry at the world AND (if you don’t follow what they believe to the letter) at YOU in particular. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that I am going to hell forever because I have come to believe that God actually is love and that love will find a way to restore all things, just as it says in the Bible (Acts 3:21). In other words, I believe in Universal Salvation and a loving, heavenly Father who will find a way to bring this to pass.
This angry vision of God, the demanding law-keeper and strict theologian, is not limited to any one particular group of people, and not even to Christians. It is a commonality to fundamentalists of all kinds, even those whom I refer to as the “Crankydox,” Orthodox Christians who claim that anyone outside their flavor of Orthodox, and especially Roman Catholics, have a one-way ticket to fiery hell punched and ready to go. These Orthodox are usually Russian Orthodox Fundamentalists or American converts to Orthodoxy from Western theologies such as Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. They bring their warped vision of God with them. I have read about Orthodox priests who are lamenting the baggage with which converts are polluting the Orthodox faith.
Yet this demanding God declares Joseph a good and just man, and does not condemn him for his wrong actions. If God were that kind of Fundamentalist, we would see the angel coming down to Joseph not to instruct him, but to smack him around a bit and reproach him for not keeping the law of God to the very letter!
What am I trying to say here?
I am trying to say that while truth is important, moreso is love. If another person professes the Christian faith, with an observable love and devotion to Christ, love for him/her must trump my desire that this person believe exactly as I do. Arguing, name-calling, wishing upon them God’s wrath – these things in no way represent the Christ whom I claim to follow. If I believe in Universal Salvation, then it is not my job to scold people into what I consider right belief or to “get them saved.” Enlightenment – both for ME and others – is God’s job. He has been patiently at it with me for over 50 years now and I am still a dunderhead. Thank God for His love. My work is to live that love of Christ through my life – and by doing so, give God the opportunity to bring others to Himself. How long He takes and how He leads others is up to Him, some even into eternity itself.
None of us has a perfect understanding of God’s ways. But what we have been given is this: Love covers a multitude of sins. (1Peter 4:8). Love demands that I, like Joseph, put aside the strictness of the law and treat with charity those with whom I disagree.
Would that on this Christmas Day, when we celebrate the God of heaven becoming a man destined to die for the whole world and restore all things to Himself, we all begin to learn this.