A betrothal in Biblical times was a promise as binding as marriage. After a betrothal ceremony, bride and groom would return to their own family households for several months to a year or more while the groom prepared the marriage chamber.
The groom would add a room on his family house. If rich, laborers would build it. If poor, the groom went to work himself, taking up trowel and mud, stone and chisel, hammer and nail. When the chamber was ready, the groom would send for the bride. A wedding would take place, a celebration with extended family and friends, the marriage consummated, feasting for days.
But sometime between Mary and Joseph’s betrothal and the wedding, Mary “fills out a bit”.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way: When his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18)
Have you prepared a room for someone to have them cancel last minute? Or planned and prepared a meal, to have it left uneaten? Unless we have reached a perfect spiritual detachment, our preparations are woven through with expectation. Not, hopefully, expectations of gratitude or repayment, but hope, the anticipation of giving happiness. Expectation is part of our joy.
Mary’s pregnancy undermines the preparations Joseph had made, the physical effort, the time and expense. Hopes dashed, he grapples with the humiliation and disappointment. In the end, Joseph chooses neither anger nor retribution.
“[L]ove and pity alike hindered him from pressing the law, which made death by stoning the punishment of such a sin. . . .” – Ellicot’s Commentary.
Love and pity alike.
Pity: the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others.
Compassion usurps the letter of law. Joseph would not have Mary stoned, but being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:19)
If you are a skeptic or atheist who dismisses Christmas as the story of a girl caught in a “family way” blaming divine intervention, consider this: The writer of the gospel of Matthew chose to begin the Christmas story with perceived failure, shame and betrayal, and a cuckholded man’s response. If you consider the story fiction, consider it an allegory on leniency and grace.
Joseph’s ultimate response, of course, exceeds the compassion of not stoning a pregnant girl to death. His mercy is fortified by faith. “. . . As he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’” (Matthew 1:21-22)
The wedding is back on, a journey to Bethlehem on a donkey, away in a manger, wise men, et al. Then the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. . . . (John 1: 14) The Creator of the Universe, of all that is and was and ever will be, became a vulnerable infant, one of us.
The Christian response to any affront—perceived or otherwise—any failure, or any disappointment, is Joseph’s response: mercy.