Did Joseph break the law?

After Sunday’s Mass readings, the priest gave his homily. The focus was how Joseph, realizing that Mary was with child, should have turned her over to be stoned to death for adultery. He said that Joseph, a righteous man who lived by the law, decided, out of love for Mary, to break the law by divorcing Mary quietly instead of turning her over to be stoned. Of course the priest then went on to explain how the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to tell him the child was of the Holy Spirit, and that he need not be ashamed to take Mary as his wife, etc…

Something about the way the priest presented this hit me the wrong way: As if the only reason we got our Messiah was because a man broke the law over the love of a woman. That does not sound right. Was this a really bad homily, or not?

The penalties of the law were not absolutes (i.e., X happens, Y must follow) that could not be mitigated for the sake of mercy. Analogously, the penalties attached to our own laws can be mitigated if individual circumstances warrant it. Joseph apparently believed that Mary did not deserve to be exposed as an adulteress, likely because he did not believe she was guilty of adultery. Perhaps in order to spare her a penalty he did not believe she deserved, he decided to divorce her quietly. Joseph’s plan of action would have fulfilled the letter of the law (i.e., divorce because Mary was pregnant with a child that was not his own) while sparing Mary consequences he did not think she should face (i.e., the penalties attached to adultery, a punishment he most likely did not think was fitting to the situation).

Rather than “break” the law, Joseph was doing his best to fulfill his obligations to the law without unnecessarily punishing Mary. Frank Sheed, in his book To Know Christ Jesus, points out that a saint of Joseph’s greatness would have recognized a saint of Mary’s uniqueness. Joseph’s knowledge of Mary’s holiness and purity means it is doubtful that Joseph thought her guilty of any crime, particularly one that merited death under the law.

**Recommended reading:

The Perpetual Virginity of Mary** by Br. Anthony Opisso, M.D.

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