Today’s Gospel describes Joseph as "a righteous man." The word “righteous” and related word “justice” at times indicate for me the firm following of rules, rigid requirement to be upright, and constraining command to live life with legalistic compliance. According to Jewish law, since Mary was betrothed and pregnant, the “right” and "just" response mandated the community to stone her (Dt. 22: 21) – and our God within her.
Mary appeared to have incurably violated what was "right.” The law gave Joseph every "right" to punish her severely. His love for her, however, helped him resist the law's demands just enough for God to partner with him. I can hardly imagine how a faithful groom like Joseph must have felt knowing his beloved fiancée was pregnant – fear, love, heartbreak, desire, confusion, resolve, anger. Still, he decided to spare her life. How he must have struggled – torn between reacting out of fear and responding out of love. What was the “right” and “just” thing to do?
Thankfully, God's desired plan of love goes beyond our incomplete view of "justice." With grace, Joseph opened his heart enough for God to enter. God’s messenger encouraged Joseph: “do not be afraid.” This freedom from fear gave Joseph the courage to love, to embrace Mary as a wife. Joseph humbly followed God. He did not treat Mary with limited, fixed "justice" - as the law demanded. Instead, Joseph decided to risk loving Mary - the perceived offender of Jewish law - and so saved her – and our God within her.
Perhaps this response gives us a better picture of what God's justice looks like: mercy. I witness this mercy firsthand when I am with incarcerated youth – especially those tried as adults due to their ages and the natures of their alleged crimes. Every time I encounter a 14- or 15-year-old, who is continually shackled, locked in a cell, judged, condemned, and labeled “monster” or “basura” or worse, I am reminded: this is the blessed, broken, and beloved body of Christ. We, as a society, repeatedly empty the hope of many young lives by strictly imposing what is “right” and “just,” following the mandates of our systematic laws. We determine their young lives over, before they have even really begun; but God persists in God’s mercy.
Every once in a while, guarded hearts are cracked open just enough for God to enter, defend, and heal. In these moments of vulnerability, God’s grace reminds mis hermanitos or hermanitas: they are God’s most beloved treasure – regardless of even their gravest shortcomings. What a relentless and stubborn mercy! Not just for them or Joseph or Mary, though. For me too. In the mere witness of God’s unreserved love and mercy for these children, I am awed. I receive the grace to open up my own heart of stone and accept God’s loving and healing mercy in my own life. I hope to grow into a life that better reflects the mercy I have been uninhibitedly given.
May I allow our ever-loving and -merciful God's justice to rule my heart and life a little more today.
What fears block me from responding out of love?
What demands of "justice" can I let go of to let God's mercy heal my life and heart?
Who am I being called to love better - to defend God within that person?