“The Supreme Court has decided. It’s the law.” Many people let something as small as a Supreme Court decision be the guiding factor of right and wrong in their lives. Charles Hamilton Houston didn’t. He took on the odious “Plessy v Ferguson” decision of the Supreme Court which declared that white people and black people could be divided into “separate but equal” facilities. He worked quietly, avoiding the fanfare but showing that “separate but equal” just meant separate and that black people were not being treated equally. He argued cases before the Supreme Court that provided the basis for dismantling the Plessy decision. He died before the final blow came to Plessy in the 1954 “Brown v Board of Education” decision which prohibited segregation in public schools, but he was the quiet mover in the fight against a bad law.
Sometimes the laws of God seem extreme. Today the concept of “an eye for an eye” seems terrible, but it was a limit to the system of vengeance that existed back in the days of Moses. There were laws pertaining to adultery that were designed to protect the family unit – an important part of any godly society. One of those laws would allow a husband to submit his adulterous wife to public humiliation. When Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, and he knew that he wasn’t the father, Joseph could have used the law to subject her to public humiliation. He didn’t. “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about : His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (Matthew 1:18-19)
Rather than exercise his full rights under the law, Joseph decided to leave Mary with whatever dignity she might have left in the community. He must have been disappointed and hurt by what he rightfully thought was her betrayal. We all know the truth, now, and celebrate it, but imagine Joseph getting the news that his betrothed bride was pregnant. The law would have allowed public humiliation and even stoning. The story of Joseph is often forgotten when we tell of the birth of Jesus. Sometimes we think that Joseph led the donkey to Bethlehem, looked for an inn, took the family to Egypt, and taught Jesus how to sling a hammer – and not much more. We marvel about God’s choice of Mary to be the mother of Jesus and pay lip service to Joseph. In this passage, though, we see that God chose an amazing man to be the earthly father of His Son. Joseph showed that he was a man full of grace and forgiveness; two qualities that Jesus showed during His life. Joseph went beyond the Law to bring redemption to Mary.
As Christians, we can demand our rights as Americans and as citizens of Heaven. If doing so advances God’s Kingdom, then we should demand those rights. At the same time, we may need to realize that instead of demanding our rights and privileges, we should be ready to show forgiveness and mercy to those who would suffer from the exercise of our rights. Sometimes I get so caught up in my needs and my desires that I forget that I am not here on earth for myself. I am a child of God who is her to minister and serve, not rule over others. Do we advance the Kingdom when we fight for our rights or do we turn people off by exercising those rights? Our question should not be “how can I win this fight?” but “how can I minister to others in this conflict?” It’s not the law that guides us; we are guided by grace.
Oh Lord, remind me every day that I am called to serve and minster to others – not rule over them.