There’s the right thing to do, and then there’s the really right thing to do. Usually, God has to show us the latter.
The Bible calls us to remember the different roles faithful human beings played in the arrival and upbringing of Jesus Christ on earth. The stories of Joseph and Mary have a particular twist to them that we should keep in mind whenever we’re trying to discern God’s will.
Joseph was a righteous or “just” man. We know this because the fact is stated flatly in his story as found in Matthew 1:18-25. By “just,” the author of Matthew is saying that Joseph is more than a simple keeper of the law; he has what we might call a good heart.
Most Christians know the basics of the story. Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, found herself to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, carrying the promised Messiah in her womb. This meant very real trouble for Mary. In her day, an engagement carried with it all the legal and moral requirements of a full marriage, even though the couple had not yet consummated the relationship.
Upon discovering Mary was pregnant by another, Joseph under the law had every right to have her publicly shamed and even stoned to death. Instead, he resolved to let her escape what he believed to be her sin, “planning to dismiss her quietly.”
It was very much the right thing to do, a gracious, loving and noble act, abundant in mercy toward someone he believed had wronged him terribly. Joseph was truly a good-hearted man.
Our righteousness can never match God’s holiness, however, and sometimes we are called to go beyond even high standards of goodness to follow God’s will. When an angel later came to Joseph in a dream, he learned the truly spectacular facts surrounding the child in Mary’s womb.
To follow God’s will, Joseph had to do several difficult things. He had to trust that his relationship with God was strong enough to let him hear God correctly. He had to risk his honor, exposing himself to the whispers that may have happened in his village: “Joseph cannot control himself,” or another possible rumor, “Joseph is foolish enough to raise another man’s child.”
And most of all, he had to take on a challenge few people would feel equipped to handle, the protection and rearing of the Savior.
Joseph proved to be the kind of man God sought. Apparently without hesitation, he took on this task as soon as he awoke.
In Luke, which focuses more on Mary’s story, we see a similar ability to go beyond the human definition of what is right and dwell in God’s holy plan. When Mary prophetically utters what we now know as the “Magnificat,” we see a mind open to God’s extraordinary plan to turn the world topsy-turvy through Christ.
I believe we still experience Joseph and Mary moments today. There are decisions we face where there are at least two answers, one demonstrably good to the world, the second riskier but even more in tune with something new that God seems to be doing.
Maybe the decision lies in how we deal with our spouses or raise our children. Maybe it has to do with the work of our church. Perhaps it is in the very calling God has placed on our lives.
The key is to stay in tune with God through prayer, study and worship, and then watch for God’s guidance in such moments. We’re left then to ask ourselves, “Can I respond as bravely as Joseph and Mary?”
It’s not hard to get to “yes” if we keep in mind the lesson of the coming Christmas season. God is with us, and as the angels tell us repeatedly, we have nothing to fear.