Growing up in the church, my knowledge and understanding of the Christmas story was shaped in great part by the annual children’s program. It was a necessary tradition, loved by parents and grandparents, and valued by pastors for its attendance boosting capabilities. Personally, I despised it. As a shy, introverted kid, being trotted up on a platform and forced to spout some memorized lines to a church full of people was my private Nightmare Before Christmas. With all that aside, there were some things I learned through those December Sunday mornings, and also some things I didn’t. Joseph fell into the latter category. For some undeserved reason, Joseph received little consideration or attention in our retelling of the story. Mary always had a significant, dramatic role, and there were plenty of songs about angels and shepherds. Even the innkeeper usually had an obligatory line, turning away the expecting couple. Joseph, on the other hand, was just the awkward kid in a bathrobe, standing quietly by the manger like some extra in a movie.
He deserves better treatment, and we desperately need to learn what he so well teaches. When Joseph first becomes aware of Mary’s pregnancy, for all he knew he was an innocent victim, betrayed by the unfaithfulness of one legally bound to be his wife. As such, he had rights. According to the law, he was bound to divorce the unfaithful spouse, and he could choose to make her and her family pay in the process. He had every right to drag her through a public trial, to impound her dowry, to recover any bride price that was paid. He had that right, and most would say it’s what she deserved.
Joseph was different than most, though. We’re told that because he was a righteous man, he chose to divorce her quietly. He gave up his right to compensation; he turned away from the path of shaming her publicly. Rather than demand his own rights or seek to make someone pay for his hurt, Joseph chose mercy. Contrary to those who said she deserved to suffer, he opted for grace.
Just a surface glance at the state of our world this Advent season tells us that mercy is a quality in short supply. People commonly demand their own rights, while willing denying the rights of others. Hurt and anger seem to overflow into the desire for vengeance, the need to make someone pay. We assume that our hurt justifies any hurt we may cause others. We hate those who hate us; those who fail us are judged and cut off. Our world spins on the axis of getting what you deserve. The notion of responding to all of the hurt, brokenness, failure, and hatred in our world with a spirit of mercy seems “other-worldly.”
Perhaps it seems that way because it is that way. Mercy is not the natural response of this world, but it is the spirit of the kingdom that is coming. The mercy we see in Joseph became fully embodied in the person of Jesus. He laid down his life, not demanding his rights or protecting his own position. Rather than leave us to what we deserve, he paid the price for us. This is mercy; it is the way of Jesus and the spirit of his kingdom. As his followers, you and I are called to live as “other-world” people, bearing witness to another kingdom, another way. When others call for vengeance and hatred, we choose mercy.
May this Advent season remind us that no matter what the world around us might say or what others might do, we follow a King who tells us, “Blessed are the merciful.”