I was re-reading Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth this week in preparation for Advent and the celebration of Christmas. A verse I had read dozens of times spoke to me in a new way. Matthew 1:19 describes Joseph’s planned response when he learns that Mary is expecting a child. He clearly knows that he isn’t the father, and the law of Moses would have allowed him to have her publicly shamed and stoned to death as an adulterer. He would have assumed of course that the child had been fathered by another man as there was no other logical, human explanation for her pregnancy. The Bible says that because Joseph was a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, he decided to send her away secretly.
That statement prompted me to think about how true righteousness impacts the way we live. Far too often, the pharisaical kind of self-righteousness that so many practice leads to condemnation and harsh judgment of others who fall into sin. Joseph’s righteousness prompted him to exhibit grace toward Mary—not “ungrace,” to borrow a term from Phillip Yancey. Even as heartbroken as he must have been at the thought of her infidelity, his love for Mary prompted Joseph to show grace and protect her from both shame and death. His actions strongly suggest those that his earthly son Jesus would later take when confronted with the woman caught in the act of adultery.
The passage suggests that true righteousness isn’t displayed most clearly by the visible sins that it is willing to denounce, but by the love and grace it shows toward those who stumble and fall. The Christmas message is that God’s love and grace led Him to give His Son for a stumbling and fallen humanity—each and every one of us.