Advent, Day 7: Mercy


Today, I’m going to look at the birth of Jesus from the perspective of the donkey.  

Just kidding.  I have no idea what the donkey was thinking.  And it’s been done.  

But I am going to offer a simple thought.  

“Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.”

If you know the story, you know that Mary was engaged to Joseph. Then Mary was pregnant.  “But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Joseph got this news.  I don’t know how.  It can’t have been a good moment for him.  He had his future planned, then he heard of Mary’s pregnancy, to which he knew he had not contributed.  Now Joseph’s future seemed splintered.  

At this moment, in this culture, Joseph could have destroyed Mary.  If you remember the woman caught in adultery and publicly dragged before Jesus in John 9, the question many of us ask is, “Where’s the other guilty party?”  But women were particularly defenseless, with no legal voice or standing of their own.  Joseph had the legal right to accuse Mary, and if she were found guilty, her punishment would be stoning.  Execution.  

We don’t live in a culture that punishes a woman with death for cheating on her fiancé.  But Mary did.  Because of her situation, Joseph had power over her. 

He chose not to use it.  He chose not to disgrace her publicly, which at minimum would have destroyed her future–no one else in respectable society would have married her, and there weren’t dozens of options for single women in 1st century Jewish culture–and might have ended her life.

I know all this seems hypothetical–yet I think it’s not.  

Why did God choose Mary?  There have been volumes, libraries, cities of libraries written on Mary.  

I’ll probably offer some reflections on Mary, because her relationship with Elizabeth is so wonderful, as is her response to the angel messenger.  

But God also chose Joseph.  God chose Mary who was betrothed to Joseph.  Much has been made of Joseph’s response to the angel who came to him and said, “…do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit…”  But believing a miracle when an angel comes by and tells you about it?  

I think that was the easy part. Extraordinary, absolutely.  But if angels are as we imagine, based on every single person’s response to them in Scripture, it would have been convincing.  Bewildering, but convincing.  

The hard part, as I see it, came when Joseph thought he was living through an ordinary situation in which he had been betrayed.  The hard part was finding out that, to outward appearances, he had his trust broken.  The hard part, from my perspective, was choosing not to act in anger, not avenging his betrayal.  

God could have sent the angel to tell Joseph before Joseph got the pregnancy news.  Why not?  “Joseph, you will find out your betrothed is pregnant, but this is actually great news, not what you might think.”  I don’t know why God chose to wait.  I don’t understand a lot of God’s choices or timing.  

But I know we see whom God chose more from Joseph’s decision not to hurt Mary out of spite, even though she seemed to deserve what he could have done, even though many of us could argue that she would have gotten the consequences of her own sin.  

Joseph showed mercy.*  The man whom God chose to be Jesus’ earthly father, to raise and love and nurture and teach the child Jesus, before he knew anything of Jesus or of God’s plan for this child, anticipated Jesus’ command:

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  

My thought is this: merely because we have the power to hurt others does not mean we should use it.  Even if they “deserve” it, following Joseph, following Jesus, we can offer mercy.  

We live by mercy.  

We can show mercy.  


*One might be inclined to say, “But this is all hypothetical; Mary didn’t cheat on Joseph; she didn’t need mercy.”  I think that’s missing the point by reading the middle through the lens of the end.  We do this too often with Scripture, as if the human beings in the Bible lived in a children’s Sunday School play.  No, in Joseph’s real life, he had to find out that his betrothed was pregnant and then choose how to respond.  Joseph’s actions revealed Joseph’s heart.

5 thoughts on “Advent, Day 7: Mercy

  1. Beverlee Paine

    “Joseph’s actions revealed Joseph’s heart” – your last sentence is the zinger for me this AM. In God’s dealings with me it is always about the heart. I seem to be wired to make it about ‘outward appearances’ but He always has His finger on the state of my heart. Blessings on you today.

  2. Jacqueline Langner

    God’s purposes are so detailed. I appreciate how you notice this in Joseph’s life today….and in other pieces you’ve written. Thank you for challenging us to follow God deeply, from the heart. Keep writing, Brother! We’re grateful for you.

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