Mary, the adulteress. Joseph, the fool. Jesus, the illegitimate.
We don’t often hear the principle characters in the Christmas story described this way. Yet, this is how their neighbors saw them. This is what their friends tried very hard to disbelieve. This is what was whispered by old women at the well, laughed at by men in the taverns, mocked by children at their apprenticeships. In our society, we simply shrug our shoulders in sadness when we hear of a friend who has fallen into sexual immorality. Any sense of outrage has been erased by the frequency of such a sin. Back in Nazareth, it would have been the talk of the town. Averted eyes, knowing smirks, awkward glances. These were the Christmas presents afforded to Mary by her neighbors.
Nazareth was a tiny town in Galilee. You were born there. You died there. You were poor your whole life. Nobody moved to Nazareth. You were shunned by the socialites during Passover. Nathaniel spoke the national opinion when scoffed “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46)
When Gabriel appeared to Mary, she was probably thirteen years old. Joseph was fifteen. Their marriage had been arranged by the parents, both of whom were probably very satisfied to see their children married. These facts aren’t comfortable for us Americans. Mary was a seventh-grader. Joseph a freshman. But it’s the way it was. God doesn’t operate within an American paradigm.
Mary and Joseph were betrothed–legally committed to one another, yet not officially married. They were getting used to the idea of marrying one another. All we specifically know about them is their character. Luke calls Joseph a “righteous man.” Mary called herself the “bond-slave of the Lord.” They were known by reputation as godly individuals. They loved Yahweh personally and passionately. People respected them and their commitment to God. Then, God destroyed it all.
When Gabriel the angel told Mary what was going to happen, she knew the consequences. She is betrothed and now pregnant. She is the only person in the sum total of history to become pregnant and still be a virgin. Nobody else saw the angel. All she has is a crazy story with all the evidence pointing against her. Who in their right mind would believe her?
Joseph didn’t believe her. Imagine what that conversation was like! “You see Joseph, this angel appeared and…” “Yeah. Right. You think I’m stupid, Mary?” Mary’s reputation was destroyed by her humble submission to the Lord’s will. She had always been the good girl, and now she was food for the gossip train.
How about Joseph? Joseph was a “righteous man” who was less than a year away from marriage. His fiancee was a God-fearing woman and, although the marriage was arranged, he no doubt respected Mary. Then his world too came tumbling down. His fiancee was pregnant and in denial of any wrongdoing. Her story showed him what she really thought of him. Only a fool would believe such a thing.
Then suddenly, an angel appears and authenticates Mary’s story. Joseph is no doubt bewildered by this turn of events, but weds Mary. Though they travel to Bethlehem for the census, Joseph, Mary, and her Son born less than nine months after their wedding return to Nazareth after sojourning in Egypt. In such a clannish environment, stigmas don’t fade. People don’t forget. There is no big news, no scandals, so when one actually happens it is the talk of the town until you die. Joseph, Mary would forever be branded by their neighbors, and Jesus would bear the label of being an illegitimate son.
The Incarnation cost two of God’s servants their reputations for life. As Jesus teaches his neighbors in Mark 6:30 thirty years after His birth, they call Him “the son of Mary.” This is a thinly veiled insult: “Mary’s the mother…but who’s the father…” Matthew 6:1 rings a little more profound knowing this, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” For the first half of their lives, Mary and Joseph’s righteousness was seen by others. Not that they practiced it for others, but they had the joy of being known as holy people. Then God orchestrated circumstances which cost them their reputations, and only He knew of their still passionate love for Him. Reputation is not a promise given by God to His people.