CHAPTER 2: SHAME AND SCANDAL
The Christmas story begins with violence and proceeds immediately to scandal. (Are you feeling the “happy holidays” yet?) Matthew’s gospel records the story this way:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
If you’ve ever had a holiday celebration ruined by family drama, don’t worry, you’re in good company: family drama spoiled the first Christmas, too. The arrival of God’s Son as an unplanned embryo was a scandal that nearly derailed a marriage, set tongues wagging throughout town, and was (or at least, appeared to be) a serious criminal offense which put Mary in very real danger. Yep, that’s how the Savior of the world arrived. Merry Christmas, everyone.
In our day, with the stigma of unwed pregnancy fading from cultural consciousness, it’s hard to get our minds around just how big of a scandal this was. This would have shattered Mary’s family. To their minds, their teenaged betrothed daughter had either cheated on her legally-binding relationship with Joseph, or else had gotten down and dirty before her wedding night. Either way, this was a really big deal. If she had cheated on Joseph, she was an adulteress, and was liable to be stoned to death in public. If she and Joseph had been together before their marriage, they would both bear the embarrassment, but Mary more obviously than Joseph (a double standard, I know, but that’s how things worked in that time).
Step into the shoes of the two principal players in this story, Mary and Joseph, to begin appreciating just how this unwelcome pregnancy rocked their worlds.
First, consider Mary. This was an assignment that she neither asked for nor wanted. This was the end of her world as she knew it. She knew that she would be unable to hide the growing, undeniable evidence of her pregnancy, and she doubted anyone would buy the “immaculate conception” story (I mean, would you?). The news would break her mother’s heart, infuriate her father, and of course wreck her engagement to Joseph. In all likelihood, she would be kicked out of her parents’ home. And then of course there was what everyone else would think. Nazareth was a small town, probably just a couple hundred people, and in small towns everyone knows everyone else’s business. Gossip about Mary would travel like wildfire, and no one would look at her the same way again. She would now be known as the village whore (and there would probably be much tongue wagging about who the baby daddy was). And her child, she knew, would surely be mocked as an out-of-wedlock bastard. Indeed, thirty years’ later, in Mark 6, Jesus’ neighbors derisively refer to him as “the son of Mary,” a clear reference to his perceived illegitimacy. If the townspeople were still talking to Jesus like that decades later, what do you think they said about his mother? This was a lifetime scarlet letter imposed on her by judgmental neighbors, a shame she would never outgrow, a shadow that would follow her the rest of her life.
And then, of course, there were the criminal implications of this pregnancy. If Joseph was so inclined, he could easily turn her over to the village authorities for prosecution as an adulteress. The penalty for adultery was death by stoning. The “immaculate conception” defense certainly wouldn’t hold up in a court of law. And just in case you think that a close-knit small town wouldn’t ever do something like that to one of their own, just consider how they treated Mary’s son thirty years later: when he arrived back in town and preached in the synagogue, a lynch mob formed and tried to stone him (Luke 4). Clearly, Jesus wasn’t welcome back home. At the time of Mary’s pregnancy, there was probably a vocal contingent of people in the town insisting that the law be followed in her case as well. Probably the only person standing between Mary and her own lynch mob was Joseph. Whether or not Joseph believed her would be the difference between whether she lived or died.
So now consider Joseph. We are told that Joseph was a “just man,” kind and righteous, and his behavior confirms that. His initial reaction to Mary’s perceived betrayal was probably the most kindness and generosity that could be expected of someone in his situation. He could have easily turned her over to the authorities and would have been completely vindicated for doing so. He could have publicly humiliated her and, in doing so, defended his own honor. Instead, we’re told that he was unwilling to put her to shame, and resolved to divorce her quietly. Even in the midst of betrayal, he still had compassion on his fiancé. Though she had undoubtedly deeply wounded him, he chose not to pay her back. He didn’t buy the virgin birth explanation, of course—after all, who would?—and therefore wouldn’t proceed with the wedding. But he still desired to shield Mary however he could from the consequences of her actions. So, he decided to quietly break off the marriage, not press charges, and let Mary go her way. Under the circumstances, that was a demonstration of incredible mercy and kindness.
But Joseph’s kindness went even further once the angel visited him and confirmed Mary’s story. Taking her as his wife didn’t make the scandal go away; it just implicated him in it. Taking her as his wife meant taking responsibility for the out-of-wedlock child too; now everyone would assume he was the father. Now, in the eyes of his friends and neighbors, it wasn’t just Mary who had sinned, it was him too. Marrying Mary meant that he agreed to shoulder the shame along with her. The whispers that followed her for decades probably followed him too.
Understanding the stench of scandal that hangs over the Christmas story helps us to feel the significance of what Mary, Joseph, and Jesus all agreed to in the incarnation. Mary’s submissive obedience to the angel—“I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”—is staggering, astounding faith on the lips of a teenage girl. Joseph’s response to the scandal is unbelievable compassion and courage. The fact that they would, without complaint, submit to God’s strange and costly call on their lives showed that God had definitely picked the right couple to raise his Son.
But as we marvel at Mary and Joseph’s faith, let’s not forget about Jesus, because this was something he agreed to as well. After all, he volunteered for this incarnation. And that means he didn’t just volunteer for the humility of being born as a human (which, as God himself, would alone have been breathtaking humility). He wasn’t even content with the humility of being born to a poor family—an amazing descent for the King of the universe. No, he went further than that. In his incarnation, he embraced more than humanity and poverty: he embraced shame. He embraced whispered gossip and smug glances and cruel jokes.
And he went further still. For all the shame of the incarnation was just a foreshadowing of the whole purpose of his mission: the shame of the crucifixion. He had come, ultimately, to embrace the scandal of a guilty verdict, a brutal flogging, vicious mocking, and horrific naked execution. Look again with fresh eyes at the Christmas miracle of Jesus’ humility described in Philippians 2:
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Scandal was Jesus’ whole mission, because the shame he had come to bear was not his own, but ours. The ministry that began with violence and shame ended with violence and shame, because he had come to be the man of sorrows, to “bear our griefs and carry our sorrows.” So next time you read the Christmas story, see gospel foreshadowing written all over it, and feel the great cost which enables you to sing,
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled!