Recently, I’ve been reading through an excellent collection of country sermons by Fred B. Craddock called The Cherry Log Sermons.

The first sermon in the collection is, appropriately enough, about the story of Christmas. As familiar as the story of Christmas is, we oftentimes are more aware of the mythology surrounding Jesus’ birth than the actual biblical narrative. It is good, then, that Craddock’s sermon focuses on an aspect of the Christmas story that is often overlooked: Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary quietly (Matthew 1:19).

San José con el Niño Jesús, El Greco

San José con el Niño Jesús ("Saint Joseph With the Boy Jesus"), El Greco

So what’s the big deal about the divorce? Here’s what Craddock has to say:

“Joseph is engaged to Mary, but he discovers that she is pregnant. […] Joseph is a good man, a righteous, a man who wants to do the right thing. That’s great, but how do you know the right thing? What is the right thing to do? […]

There are two options available to Joseph. First, he could get the opinion of people in town. Somerset Maugham said one time that the most fundamental and strongest disposition of the human spirit in civilized society is to get approval of the people around you. […] Get on the phone, attend the sewing circles, take your problem to work, talk about it over coffee, talk about it everywhere, tell everybody. ‘Did you hear about Mary, What do you think I ought to do?’ Spread it everywhere, spread it everywhere. But Joseph will not go that way. He will not disgrace Mary, will not expose her, will not humiliate her. Then what is he going to do?

He has some friends just fresh from the synagogue who say, ‘Just do what the Bible says. You can’t go wrong if you do what the Bible says.’ What about that for an answer? I have heard that all my life. ‘Just do what the Bible says.’ Well, I will tell you what it says. From Deuteronomy 22: ‘She is to be taken out and stoned to death in front of the people.’ That is what the Bible says.

I get sick and tired of people always the thumping the Bible as though you can just open it up and turn to a passage that clears everything up. You can quote the Bible before killing a person to justify the killing. ‘An eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ the Bible says. Do you know what the Bible says? ‘If a man finds something displeasing in his wife, let him give her a divorce and send her out of the house.’ It’s in the Book. Do you know what the Bible says? […] I run into so many people who carry around a forty-three-pound Bible and say, ‘Just do what the Book says.’

Joseph is a good man, and he rises to a point that is absolutely remarkable for his day and time. He loves his Bible and he knows his Bible and bless his heart for it. But he reads his Bible through a certain kind of lens, the lens of the character and nature of a God who is loving and kind. Therefore, he says, ‘I will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, shame her, ridicule her, or demean her value, her dignity, or her worth. I will protect her.’ Where does it say that, Joseph? In your Bible? I’ll tell you where it says that. It says that in the very nature and character of God.

I am absolutely amazed that Joseph is the first person in the New Testament who learned how to read the Bible.”

In Joseph we see a first glimpse of the New Covenant, rooted not in compliance to the Law but in the love that is the true purpose and τέλοϛ of the Law. In Joseph we see the truth of St. Augustine’s claim that we have misunderstood scripture if we have not found in it the double love of God and neighbor.

In short, we see with Joseph a brief demonstration of how to read the Bible.