20 But after he [Joseph] had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “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. 21 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.” (matthew 1:20–21)
Few betrayals match that of an unfaithful spouse. And while Mary and Joseph were not officially married at this point in their relationship, the process of betrothal in the ancient world was very different than it is in the modern west.
First, the betrothal was not simply a romantic agreement between a man and a woman. There were likely no grand romantic gestures, no moonlit strolls, no months or years of dating to discern if this one is “the one.” Marriage was not just two people declaring their love for one another; they were arranged by parents or other responsible parties. And love often had little to do with the arrangement, at least in the beginning. It was a contractual binding of two families.
Second, at this point, the negotiations between the families had ceased. The bride-price had been exchanged, and legal processes had been followed. The couple was considered married. Betrothal was more than modern engagement but less than what we could consider marriage in our cultural context. The betrothed, while legally bound to each other, would not consummate the marriage or live as husband and wife until after the wedding ceremony.
Do you see the issue?
Joseph and Mary were pledged to marry and therefore legally bound to each other as husband and wife. They were also culturally and religiously prohibited from sexual activity until after the wedding ceremony. When Mary turned up pregnant there were, humanly speaking, only two options. Fornication on the part of the betrothed couple or adultery by the wife. No other natural options existed. Every onlooker was safe to assume one thing. Mary had sex with someone. Having sex with Joseph before the end of the one-year betrothal and the wedding ceremony would bring great shame upon both families. Having sex with someone else would lead to an ugly and shame-filled future for both the woman and her child.
The Mosaic Law is quite clear about the punishment for adultery—both parties are to be put to death (leviticus 20:10). In this case, the proof of sexual activity was the pregnancy. The question of who the parties were would have landed squarely on the testimony of Joseph since Mary, as a woman, was not allowed to give legal testimony. Capital punishment was not a likely option since only Rome could administer the death penalty. And there was some ambiguity since Joseph and Mary’s marriage had not been consummated. Yet the text still calls Joseph Mary’s “husband” (matthew 1:19).
The common practice would have been for Joseph to publicly break the engagement and allow all the shame of the situation to fall on the guilty party—Mary. This is what the current application of the Law would have allowed and what the community—including Joseph’s family—would have likely called for. If Joseph did not break the engagement, he was essentially telling the world he was the father. Break the engagement and retain your reputation and your family’s honor, or enter into the public disgrace with your presumably unfaithful spouse—seeming to admit to a sin you did not commit. These were the options facing Joseph.
As a man who was faithful to the Law, Joseph is certainly hesitant to sacrifice his reputation and his family’s honor to remain with Mary. But as someone who obviously cared for her, he wants to minimize the public disgrace.
Others might dispute this, but it seems to me that there are two essential elements to heartbreak—love and betrayal. You can feel the heartbreak in Joseph’s conclusion. He knew what the Law said. He knew what was expected of him culturally. He knew what would be best for his family … yet even in his deep hurt, he wanted to mitigate the pain Mary felt.
This is what love does. It does not make sense to those on the outside looking in. We want justice, punishment, or revenge—especially if someone we love is the one who has been betrayed. But the brokenhearted live in the tension between love and betrayal. The abused spouse struggles to press charges against her abuser because she still loves him. The cheated upon spouse takes their unfaithful partner back because they love them. Betrayal, real or perceived, does not cancel out love. The brokenhearted know this all too well.
Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. Your betrothed has turned up pregnant. You know the baby is not yours and she claims it is not anyone else’s either—no other human that is. She says that an angel has come to her and told her that she, a virgin, will bring forth the Messiah. She claims to be pregnant via the work and will of God. After this outrageous and apparently heretical claim, she disappears to her cousin’s house, and you are left to pick up the pieces of what remains of your shattered life.
I wonder what Joseph is thinking. Is he angrier about the apparent unfaithfulness or the outrageous lie she’s telling in an attempt to cover up the unfaithfulness? How could someone do this to another person? Then again, how could someone, after such a betrayal, want to protect the betrayer? Love. Indifference or hatred would lead to thoughts of justice and vengeance. They empower and embolden us for a fight. But the betrayal by a loved one breaks us.
That is why this next phase is so powerful and filled with hope and encouragement for those who are brokenhearted.
20 “But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘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’” (matthew 1:20).
Essentially, the angel is inviting Joseph to step into Mary’s shame. “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.” This was the final step, the lynchpin of the wedding ceremony. The groom went with his friends to the bride’s house and took her back to his home to make her his wife.
Joseph found hope and encouragement for his broken heart through two avenues. The first was through an encounter with the divine. The second was through surrender.
The psalmist speaks about these two roads in Psalm 51. David had just endured his own personal dilemma—a crisis of his own making. Having unlawfully taken another man’s wife and seeing to his death, David then faced the consequences of his actions. Having repented and confessed his sin to God, David found forgiveness. He then called a distant and estranged congregation of Israel to sing and declare these to the Lord: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (psalm 51:17).
Your broken heart does not have to get the final word. In this moment Joseph had a choice. Pursue the way of justice, perhaps soothing his broken heart and damaged ego—even though Mary was not guilty of any sin—or chose the way of love and surrender. He had every legal right to divorce Mary, but for the sake of love and in humble obedience and hope in God, chose to take on her shame.
The call of the Savior to the brokenhearted is not to get over your hurt, but to surrender your broken heart to the only one who can mend it. To be clear: the call is not to stay in an abusive marriage or put up with unfaithfulness. But the call is to offer our betrayals to him. We need not be afraid to live lives of worship and surrender.
Advent reminds us that we are not trapped by the Law or the culture but invites us to pursue the way of love and redemption.