In Acts 17:16-33, there’s a story about Paul preaching in a place in Athens called Mars Hill. Mars Hill was the place where philosophers and religious teachers came to have conversations about their latest ideas. We have two equivalents to Mars Hill today: university campuses and coffee shops. On one fall Wednesday afternoon, as is our custom, I met with a group of high school guys at our local Mars Hill—Starbucks—for snacks and spiritual conversation. The guys wanted to read and discuss the book of Matthew. We skipped the genealogy section of chapter one and jumped right into the story of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1:18-25). Each of the Gospels provides a unique perspective on it. Matthew’s is especially colorful. So was our conversation.
Our discussion of this well-known passage quickly settled around this question: If you were Joseph, how would you feel? What would you do? The woman you are betrothed to is pregnant. We misinterpret that word betrothal and call it an engagement. It was a binding contract for a future marriage. In fact, betrothal was just as binding as marriage. It lasted twelve months during which time the couple took vows of celibacy. Breaking betrothals was rare and accompanied by a hefty penalty on the party who didn’t fulfill its obligations. Divorce was a word used to describe the ending of a betrothal due to infidelity. The betrothal period ended and the marriage began when the husband brought his new wife home.
Joseph and Mary’s year-long betrothal went according to plan until she became pregnant. Joseph knew the baby wasn’t his, but he was a good guy and decided not to embarrass Mary. He planned to divorce her quietly.
Here’s where our conversation got interesting. As we talked about what it would be like to be in Joseph’s sandals, the guys locked in on the words broken trust and betrayed. We talked about the times we’ve been in situations where people we trusted did something to break our trust, how we felt, and what we did. Walking away from friendships in those moments seems like the logical step.
Alone and pregnant in the ancient world was no picnic. Embarrassed families would often disown women who found themselves in the same situation as Mary. Fortunately for her, Joseph’s visit with an angel changed his mind, and he took her home to be his wife before the betrothal year was over. No ceremony, no reception.
My young theologian friends determined that despite his feelings, Joseph hung in there with someone who he was certain had broken his trust and betrayed him. Even after the angel’s visit, Joseph still had a choice. No one would blame him for cutting his losses and moving on, even though the baby was put there by God. With some Holy Spirit nudging, Joseph stayed the course. He hung in there and strengthened his commitment to someone who, under normal circumstances, would be put out.
Each of the guys then identified at least one Mary in their lives—someone who they felt had broken their trust and whom they would like to put out of their lives. Some Holy Spirit nudging took place as we discussed what they would do to hang in there and strengthen their commitment to those people.
The Christmas season is often a time of reflection about our relationship with God, family, friends, and some who used to be our friends. Which of those do you sense a need, desire, or direction to strengthen in some small way, even though you feel hurt or betrayed? Determine that step, and take it. I’m betting you won’t regret it.
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Jack Radcliffe is a husband and father of four; Coach (www.redwoodcoach.com); seminar presenter for Parenteen (www.parenteen.com); ministry consultant with Youth Ministry Architects in Nashville, TN; Dean of The Youth Ministry Institute of the Tennessee Conference UMC; and adjunct professor at Martin Methodist College. He has an MDiv from Ashland Theological Seminary in Ohio and a DMin in Practical Theology, Adolescent Development and Culture from Fuller Theological Seminary.