Welcome to Advent.
Advent is the season when people around the world focus their attention on
the astonishing mystery of God being born as a powerless baby. After 2000
years, we might think that every inch of the Christmas story has been
explored. But there’s an extraordinary twist in Matthew’s version that is
repeatedly overlooked. Perhaps its radical mercy is too counter-cultural for us.
Take a fresh look with me this Advent.
“Faithful to the Law”
Joseph was engaged to be married to a young woman named Mary. He was
a devout Jew from the royal line of King David. In fact, Matthew explicitly tells
us that Joseph was “faithful to the Law” (Matthew 1:19). With this important
detail, Matthew wants us to know that Joseph was actively obedient to the
Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament.
But a devastating problem reveals itself.
Joseph’s fiancée Mary was “found to be pregnant,” and Joseph knew that he
and Mary had not had sex (1:18). The Old Testament Law, which Joseph so
faithfully followed, gave him an explicit duty to perform. Moses was crystal
clear about what to do to a woman who had sex out of wedlock:
“She shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the
men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous
thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You
must purge the evil from among you.” (Deuteronomy 22:20-21)
Moses gives no loopholes, no footnotes, no exceptions. Mary was unmarried,
pregnant, and had to be killed.
If you think this was an outdated or ignored law, think again. We know from
the New Testament that this law was taken extremely seriously and could be
applied literally in Jesus’s day (John 8:3). Laws like this still exist in various
parts of the world today.
Now, imagine being Joseph.
Joseph must have been torn between heartbreak and rage when he
discovered Mary’s apparent betrayal. And Scripture gave him the right —
indeed, the obligation — to punish Mary by having her publicly stoned to death
in front of her father’s house.
After all, this is what Scripture demanded, so this must be what God wanted
and what Mary deserved. Killing Mary would be “righteous” — a biblical act to
“purge evil” from the community, as Moses insisted.
But Matthew’s account of Joseph’s response includes two extraordinary
words that changed history: “and yet.”
“And yet” signals a change of course, a new possibility, a subtle defiance.
Matthew reports, “And yet Joseph did not want to expose Mary to public
disgrace, [so] he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (1:19).
Joseph was “faithful to the Law.” But he decided to break from it and to do
something different, something also deeply biblical but diametrically opposed
to Moses’s command: to practice radical mercy (see Micah 6:8).
And thus Joseph boldly rejected Moses’s command and decided to divorce
Mary “quietly,” so she wouldn’t be disgraced and could get on with her
pregnancy and her life (1:19). Joseph made mercy and Mary’s flourishing his
This act of biblical disobedience literally saved Jesus’s life. In one of the
greatest paradoxes in the Bible, Jesus was born because his father
courageously chose to defy his biblical duty to kill a powerless woman.
Radical mercy gave birth to Jesus.
Joseph must have trembled as he made this counter-cultural decision. What
would his close-knit, conservative community say as they watched Mary’s
unmarried womb grow? It’s not hard to imagine their words and their
devastating effect on Joseph’s reputation:
“Moses explicitly commanded us to purge this evil, but look how
Joseph accepts it! Has he lost his faith? Has he been corrupted by the
pagan Romans? God’s Word is clear, but Joseph thinks he can stand
above it! Joseph is a snake in our community — a wolf in sheep’s
clothing! He’s corrupting our culture and destroying our moral
foundations! He’s probably a sinner just like Mary. They’re partners in
this evil, and we should purge them both like Moses commanded!”
We can hear echoes of this communal resentment later in Jesus’s story.
Matthew tells us that Jesus’s hometown wouldn’t even say Joseph’s name
and angrily dismisses Jesus as a nobody: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?”
Today we might say that Joseph was, at best, a “liberal” or, more likely,
branded as willfully unfaithful and rebelliously disobedient to God’s revealed
Radical Mercy Unlocks Divine Revelation
Matthew tells us that it’s at this moment, soon after Joseph’s decision, that
God reveals to Joseph that this baby is actually God-conceived. An angel
declares to him,
“Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife,
because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth
to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save
his people from their sins.” (1:20-21)
Notice this astonishing sequence.
First, Joseph decides to practice radical Torah-transcending mercy. Then,
after that, God reveals the miracle growing in Mary’s womb. Joseph’s
scandalous love doesn’t block God’s will; it unlocks its revelation. This
“bastard” child is actually Immanuel, “God with us” (1:23).
Now, imagine if Joseph’s response to Mary’s pregnancy had been like the
bumper sticker theology we see today: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!”
Imagine if Joseph had seen radical mercy as wrong.
Joseph would have killed Mary, Jesus would have died in her womb, and
salvation would have been aborted in the name of obeying God.
Joseph’s “and yet” decision changed everything. His courageous act of
biblical disobedience saved Jesus and brought God’s story of salvation to its
Like Father, Like Son
As “the carpenter’s son,” it’s not surprising that Jesus grew up practicing
Joseph’s radical mercy.
Years later, the teachers of the law and other religious leaders bring a woman
caught in adultery to Jesus. Unsurprisingly, they tell him, “In the Law, Moses
commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:5).
Jesus courageously saves this woman’s life.
He answers, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a
stone at her” (John 8:7). Jesus cuts to the heart of such “biblical” violence. If
sinful humans have the right to kill other sinful humans, who could possibly
hope for mercy from a sinless God? For Jesus, even the violence that Moses
allowed is inherently hypocritical and risks self-condemnation.
The teachers of the Law get the point. They drop their stones and walk away.
Two things are especially striking here. First, unlike Mary, this woman was
actually guilty. Second, unlike Joseph, Jesus was actually sinless and could
have enforced the Law without hypocrisy.
And yet. Jesus follows the example of his radically merciful father Joseph and
tells this woman, “I don’t condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin”
(John 8:11). What an amazing reversal — from “Moses commanded us to
stone such women” to “I don’t condemn you.”
Here we see the powerful influence of parenting on who we become. Jesus
was the son of his parents, and he followed the example of mercy they
embodied in his home. No wonder Jesus quickly earned the derogatory but
divine nickname “friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:19).
As we enter Advent this year, which “and yet” decisions will you make? Will
you choose radical mercy like Joseph and Jesus, even when authoritative
voices tell you to condemn?
And how might your act of love unexpectedly unlock a new revelation of God’s
presence in our violent, grief-stricken world? Jesus was born once and for all;
but he is also waiting to be born again today in and through each one of us as
we love like Joseph.
This radical love is our hope and our work.
Look toward Advent.