Joseph gets the short shrift this time of year it seems to me.

In our crèches, Mary sits close to the baby at the center of the scene, and Joseph often is standing behind and to the side looking on as a spectator.

In Luke, Mary does get most of the attention. But in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is where the action is.

Mary and Joseph are engaged; but before they consummate the marriage, Mary is “found” to be with child (Matthew 1:19).

One has to wonder how she was “found.” Did the neighbors notice? Did Joseph get suspicious at her expanding girth? Was her mother the first to catch on?

In any case, this appears to be what we would describe as an unplanned out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancy.

We, the readers, and Mary know what has happened; but no one else in the story knows what we know – least of all Joseph. To them, Mary looks like a girl who “got herself in trouble.”

I worked at a hospital while in seminary, and one night a woman brought her teenage daughter, who was having severe abdominal pain, into the emergency room.

The nurse quickly discovered that the girl was in labor. The girl’s mother refused to believe it.

After the delivery, the doctor showed the woman the baby. She accused them of trying to foist someone else’s baby on her daughter.

“That can’t be my daughter’s baby; she is not married,” she asserted.

Perhaps Mary’s mother struggled to find an explanation as well.

Joseph discovers his wife-to-be is pregnant. How he came to know we are not told, but certainly the news would have spawned feelings of betrayal, embarrassment and probably anger.

But Matthew tells us Joseph is a righteous man; therefore, he chooses to break off the betrothal quietly, minimizing any pain or embarrassment to either family.

He could have chosen otherwise. He could have publicly accused her and had her stoned. Because he was a righteous man, he chose simply to walk away.

There was one option that was not available to Joseph. There was one course of action that never would have entered his mind. There was one choice that would have been impossible in his world.

He could never take Mary as his wife and raise someone else’s child. That was absolutely forbidden. He was, after all, a righteous man.

Yet that is precisely what the angel of the Lord tells Joseph to do, and he does it straightway.

Joseph appears to have had a predisposition to the more refined definition of righteousness that will be developed in Matthew’s Gospel, a predisposition that made him a good candidate for his role in the Christmas story.

Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus will say, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

I suspect that his listeners looked at one another and thought they had no chance of making the cut.

The scribes and Pharisees were the epitome of law-abiding Jews, a standard that most people would never equal, let alone exceed.

Yet, as we move through this gospel, Jesus redefines righteousness.

Close to the end he will say to the religious leaders, “You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).

There is something more important than a meticulous following of regulations; that more important piece of obedience is found in justice, mercy and faithfulness.

In Matthew 9:13, Jesus says, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” referencing Hosea 6:6.

The leaders did not learn their lesson because in Matthew 12:7 he accuses, “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”

This is what Joseph knew intuitively, and that is why he showed no hesitation in taking this pregnant woman as his wife and raising this son as his own. He knew that greater righteousness grounded in mercy.

Like Mary, Joseph was an extraordinary human being used by God to usher in a new chapter in God’s pursuit of us.

Joseph heard the voice of mercy instead of the voice of sacrifice. He already knew what God was doing through this baby.

We would do well to emulate Joseph not only during this Christmas season but also throughout the coming new year.

Jim Kelsey is executive minister of the American Baptist Churches-New York State. A version of this article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.

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