We actually don't know a lot about Joseph from the Scriptures. He is mentioned in the first two chapters in Luke, the first two chapters in Matthew, and that's about it. We assume that he was a good father-figure to Jesus, but there's nothing specifically written to say that. We don't know how old he was when he married Mary. We don't know if he was married before. We don't know how old he was when he died. The main things we know about Joseph come from the Gospel reading we heard today. And from that, we know that Joseph was a man who believed in mercy.
This tends to get skipped over when we tell the Christmas story, but when Mary said yes to the angel Gabriel that she would be willing to bear the Messiah child, it meant that she was going to be an outcast. It meant that—as an unwed mother—she was bringing on an unimaginable amount of shame on herself within the context of her community. It also meant that she was bringing on an unimaginable amount of shame upon Joseph, her betrothed.
Shame. It's not just an emotion we spend a lot of time avoiding as people... it's a state of being. Having a connection to our larger communities and being well-thought of is one of the larger needs we have as human creatures. We try to present ourselves the right way. We try to say the right things. We try to get the right jobs. We try to hang out with the right people. We try to do go to the "right" schools... and we do all of these things, in part, in order to maintain a sense of dignity within our larger community.
And when those things break down in our lives, whether it is through something we have done or something that has been done upon us, it is intensely painful. No one likes to be the subject of gossip. No one likes to be looked down upon. No one, no matter how much of a rebel then pretend to be, likes to see their police mug shot on the cover of a supermarket tabloid. And yet, when Mary first said yes to the angel Gabriel, this is the world into which she was entering. And if that wasn't enough, she was bringing Joseph into that world of shame with her.
For those of us who have ever been cheated on, we know that it hurts. What is even worse is when everyone else finds out. Family members. Friends. Co-workers. People for whom we not think too highly of ourselves. Of course Mary did not cheat on Joseph, but at first, Joseph had no way of knowing that. All he knew was that he had been humiliated by his betrothed. And it must have been painful.
The society in which Joseph lived however, did have mechanisms for him to restore his honor. Yes, he could quietly divorce her and wash his hands of the whole affair. But, by law, he could also have had her stoned to death. As we know from later on in the gospels when the officials brought the woman caught in adultery before Jesus, women caught in compromising conditions were often executed. Jesus, of course, showed the woman mercy. Looking back, we can wonder if he learned that from Joseph.
Joseph's first instinct was not to seek retribution on Mary, it was to show mercy. That was probably no easy feat. When so many of us have been wronged, foregoing revenge is usually not our immediate impulse. I know during those times in my life when I have been humiliated, mercy was not my first instinct. And yet, the main revelation we have of Joseph's character is that when he was initially presented with a situation that would have cause him great shame and humiliation within his larger community, his instinct was to show Mary mercy.
That's probably the main point of this story. We have heard Paul say that if we want peace, then seek justice. In today's readings, Joseph's actions let us know that, if we want faith, then show mercy. If we want faith, then show mercy. Because it is after Joseph decides to show mercy that the angel comes to him and tells him to be not afraid. It is after Joseph shows mercy that the angel lets him know that he is going to be a vital part of this huge story known as salvation history. It is after Joseph shows mercy that amazing things happen in this world.
It has been said that we live in a particularly faithless time. Secularism is on the rise. More people are doubting the existence of God. And for many in our country, it is a particularly scary time. As a result, many people have been asking for more faith. More faith that there is good in this world. More faith that things are going to be okay. More faith that God is with us. And to that, we hear Joseph say to us through his actions, if you want more faith, show more mercy.
Show mercy to those who have wronged us... even if we are not completely ready to forgive that person yet. Show mercy to ourselves from all of the various ways we can beat ourselves up for not keeping up with the society around us and the times we mess up in life. If we want more faith, show more mercy to the outcasts in our own society today: the immigrant who does not have papers to be here, the person of a different faith tradition, the person with whom you passionately disagree with politically.
We don't know a lot about Joseph from the Scriptures, but the most important thing we know is that he was a man of mercy... and he shows us that mercy is the gateway to faith. So in this last week of advent, think of one person or group of people to whom you can show mercy, and do it. If we want more faith, we need to show more mercy. What better way to finish our advent season and prepare for the coming of Jesus into this world.