I’ve never been great at compassion. My attitude trends toward wanting people to take personal responsibility. I have,however, been growing in compassion over recent years and I’m glad because it is more reflective of God.
As Christmas approaches, I like to read through the story again and see where God directs me. By the way, I’ve written a special take on the Christmas story. You can check it out here.
This year, something in Josephs role in the story of Christmas stood out to me.
I’ve always believed that Joseph was a real unsung hero in the Christmas story. Now, I believe it more than ever.
You know how it goes. Joseph and Mary were pledged to be married. Mary turns up pregnant. Joseph isn’t the father and so he decides to quietly divorce her in order to spare Mary some of the indignity of her situation and possibly even spare her life. I’ve always considered that to be a very kind act, but it is even more than that. Check out the text.
“Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her (Mary) quietly.” -Matthew 1:19
This verse gives a very specific reason for Josephs actions.
“Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man…”
To the Jew, a righteous man is a man who is in right standing with God because he is devoted to God’s Word. And it was because of this righteousness that Joseph acts with incredible compassion on behalf of Mary.
That seems a bit out of place to me.
The thing that I notice about us Christians is that sometimes our devotion to God’s Word doesn’t result in compassion. It often results in things like judgement, pride and calls for personal responsibility.
Yet for Joseph…at Christmas…it resulted in compassion for Mary.
There didn’t seem to be any reason for compassion. At this point, the Angel has not spoken to Joseph. All he has is an outlandish story that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit.
No one would buy that story.
Therefore, Joseph would be operating under these assumptions:
Mary was sexually immoral.
Mary had broken her promises.
Mary was a liar.
Mary was far from God.
Mary didn’t love him.
It is an amazing response, yet it is perplexing to me that compassion is his response based on his righteous devotion to God’s Word. The Bible for him was only the Old Testament Law.
It was this law that called for Mary’s death. See here. Yet, Joseph offers compassion. Why?
I think Joseph was a truly righteous man.
He didn’t think himself righteous because he perfectly obeyed the law. He was no Pharisee type. Like all who are truly righteous, Joseph knew through the law that he himself was a sinful man who needed God’s grace. It’s always been that way. The bible declares that even the Father of God’s people, Abraham, became righteous in this way. See here. It wasn’t his great acts of obedience. It was his great act of faith that reveals the dependence of a sinful man on the grace of God.
In Romans 3:20, Paul says it this way:
“Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.”
In Galatians 3:24, Paul adds this:
“So the law was put in charge to lead us to “Christ that we might be justified by faith.”
Joseph didn’t have the benefit of Paul’s words, but he understood sin and grace which was the purpose of the law. He understood his sin and was willing to give grace to Mary even if she had committed these terrible sins.
Thankfully, Joseph learns that Mary was telling the truth and was faithful to him and to God. In the meantime, he proved to be a man of great compassion.
When you see people living far from God, what is your response?
Do you think yourself better, smarter, more spiritual?
Do you wish that they would just get there act together?
Do you feel a strange satisfaction when they suffer the consequences of their sin?
Here is what helps me to respond a little more consistently with compassion.
People are born into darkness.
People are born blind.
People are born slaves to sin.
People are born lost.
They live in these conditions like we lived in these conditions until someone helps them to see like someone helped us to see.
There is a place for justice. There is a place for people to endure the consequences of their sin. God uses those things, but our job isn’t to meter out punishment. Our job is to give compassion…grace…love…mercy…hope.
Joseph did that and it led to a certain night in Bethlehem when the Savior of the World would be born. Grace gave birth to more grace. I think that we would find the same thing to be true.
Let’s give grace to people. May this Christmas move us toward compassion.