Tuesday
Jul102012

Joseph Divorces Mary  

The decision by Joseph to divorce his fiancee, Mary, is evidence of great compassion and empathy, even if it is invites questions about the authority of the Law of Moses regarding accused adulteresses.

Hebrew betrothals of the era were binding contracts, not as breakable as modern engagements, and could only be severed by a legal divorcement. In this case, however, it appeared that Joseph’s intended was guilty of the sin of adultery, for which he could seek to have her tried and executed by stoning, if convicted (Deuteronomy 22:22, Leviticus 20:10, Proverbs 6:32).

Joseph, however, did not choose to seek a release from Mary on these grounds, but planned to put her away by some private means, sparing her the shame of being labeled an adulteress. It is questionable whether, during the Roman occupation of Israel in the first century, execution would have been allowed anyway, but Joseph sought to shield Mary even from embarrassment. Perhaps, knowing her character, Joseph was convinced that some explanation other than intentional adultery was indicated. Although it would have been hard for him to conjure up anything as fantastic as the immaculate truth, Joseph was right in suspecting the innocence of Mary.

In what would become a hallmark of his adopted son’s ministry, Joseph demonstrated impressive compassion and understanding. Many men, in similar circumstances, would respond with pure hatred and wrath upon finding their fiancee to be pregnant with what clearly had to be someone else’s child. While history has focused almost entirely upon the nobility of Mary, the character of Joseph in this single transaction proves the Holy Spirit made an equally excellent selection in the man who would act as father to Jesus upon Earth. Joseph was rewarded with a position of great importance.

We learn from Joseph’s example the importance of not jumping to conclusions about appearances, but giving people dear to us the benefit of the doubt. Love believes and hopes all things, and disdains to judge the morality until the facts are in (First Corinthians 13:7, Proverbs 18:13, 17). 

Furthermore, we learn about the virtue of discretion when it involves the potential embarrassment of others. Rather than subject Mary to public shame, Joseph preferred to conduct his separation from her in private, where she might be spared the ugliness of accusation. “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends (Proverbs 17:9). His love was earnest and capable of forgiving the deepest of betrayals (First Peter 4:8). 

In John’s gospel, another woman is caught in adultery, but literally and in the very act (8:1-11). Her accusers use her as a pawn, dragging her before Jesus to put him on the spot between the Laws of Moses and of Caesar. The cruelty of her accusers exposed them as both hypocrites and devourers.