A Painful Decision
When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:18-19)
Joseph felt a twinge of anxiety. He sensed something unusual in Mary’s request that he come.
When he arrived she was standing under the tree near her father’s house where, as a betrothed couple, they were given some supervised privacy. Mary wasn’t herself. She was staring at the ground. She seemed burdened.
“Mary, is something wrong?”
She looked up at him intensely. “Joseph… I’m pregnant.”
A blast of shock and disbelief hit him, blowing away all his coherent thoughts for a moment. His legs quavered. He grabbed at the tree to steady himself. It felt solid, rooted.
He stared at her. He was numb. No words came. Everything seemed surreal.
Mary was still looking at him with her intense eyes. He saw no shame in them. No defensiveness, no defiance. Not even tears. They looked…innocent. And they were searching his eyes for an answer.
Mary broke the charged silence. “What I need to tell you next I don’t even know how to say.”
Joseph leaned harder into the tree, bracing himself. He looked down to Mary’s feet. Her feet. They looked just the same as they did when he believed she was pure.
That was what made everything so strange. Mary looked as chaste as she ever did. If she had been the flirtatious type or had some discernable character weakness, this news might have been comprehendible. But Mary was literally the very last person Joseph would have suspected of unfaithfulness. He could not imagine her with another lover.
He didn’t want to know who it was.
“What I’m going to say will be very difficult to believe. But will you hear me out?” Still looking at Mary’s feet, Joseph’s nod was barely detectable.
“I have not been unfaithful to you.”
Joseph lifted his eyes to hers. Rape? That might explain her innocence. But why wouldn’t she tell me —
“God has caused me to become pregnant.”
This statement flew around his mind, looking for a place to land. It found none.
“Joseph, I know how it sounds. But I’m telling you the truth.” Then Mary described an angelic visit and the message she had received. She was to bear a son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, who would be called the Son of the Most High who would sit on David’s throne forever. God was the baby’s father. Mary was pregnant with the Messiah.
Mary sounded as sane as ever. Nothing about her was different— except that she was claiming to be pregnant with God’s child. He felt like his brain was exploding. Was she adding blasphemy to adultery? He could not conceive of her being capable of either.
“I…I don’t even know what to say to you, Mary. I can’t even think straight. I need to be alone.”
Joseph spent the late afternoon walking up on the brow of the hill that overlooked Nazareth. Things were clear up there. From this 500-foot perspective he could see the Sea of Galilee to the east, and to the west he could just see the blue Mediterranean on the horizon. But he could not see how Mary’s story could be true. He could not recall anything like it in the Torah. God, show me what to do, he pleaded.
The sun was setting as Joseph walked back toward the nearly finished house that was to be their home — the house he had dreamed just that morning would someday know the happy voices of his children — Mary’s children. That dream was now dead. His decision was made. Mary’s claims were too incredible, maybe even delusional. He needed to end the betrothal, but he resolved to do it as quietly as possible, shielding Mary from avoidable shame. He still loved her.
That night he fell asleep, exhausted from grief. And then the angel came to him and his world was flipped right side-up.
There is an encouraging lesson to draw from this story. Joseph was a just man (Matthew 1:19) and assessed the situation in the integrity of his heart, and, I assume, with a deep trust in God. He made the best decision regarding Mary that he could. It turned out to be the wrong one. But God, full of mercy, intervened. He gently corrected Joseph and gave him the guidance he needed.
God does not spare us from all awkward and painful decisions. Neither does he spare us from all wrong decisions resulting from our fallen finiteness, even if they are made in the integrity of our hearts. God has his purposes in all of these. But what we can trust him to do is faithfully give us the correction and guidance we need at the time he deems right.
Part 2 (next week): A Stable of Desperation
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