Wednesday, December 22

Katharine Roller

When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (Luke 1:18b-19)

In a world so focused on questions of justice—on what we and others deserve—it’s always surprising when, instead, we are confronted by mercy. Joseph has every right, by the standards of his day, to ruin Mary in the eyes of the world because of her presumed violation of their community’s code of sexual morality. By those standards, that would be justice. That would be what she deserves.

But that is not what Joseph does. Given power to harm, he stays his hand. Confronted with what he believes is evidence of very human sin, he meets it with God-like virtue: for “earthly power doth then show likest God’s/When mercy seasons justice.” (William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1.)

We serve a God of justice, and we are not wrong to cry out for that justice and to seek to make our world a more faithful reflection of the kingdom of God, in which law is justice, everlasting. But in this unjust and sinful world, God has as much to teach the powerful as the dispossessed. And those who possess power because of race, wealth, gender—which is what gives Joseph his power here—or any other source can learn from Joseph’s surprising and righteous choice to do mercy rather than justice … or what appears to be justice. For it is a tricky business for us, as earthly judges, to decide what others deserve. That, too, is often a surprise. The true nature of Mary’s condition—not a sign of sin, as Joseph first believed, but of deep and courageous faith—should teach us that lesson as well.

God of mercy, teach us to stay our hand when given power to harm. God of justice, teach us humility in pronouncing judgment. Amen.

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