One Man’s Forbearance

(Whether you consider the narratives of Jesus’ birth symbolic or literal, they have many levels of meaning. This is part two of an Advent series called Nativity Snapshots)

Forbearance is an old-fashioned word, rarely used in modern parlance. It means “patiently refraining from enforcing your rights.” Think of it as compassionate restraint. It defines Joseph, the man at the center of this week’s Nativity snapshot.

These are the skeletal facts we know about him. A descendant of King David, he worked as a carpenter in the backwater town of Nazareth. He was betrothed to a young peasant woman named Mary, a yearlong engagement as binding as marriage.

Sounds like a promising future, doesn’t it? But as we pick up Joseph’s story in Matthew chapter one, he faces a painful dilemma. Mary reveals she is pregnant, and her explanation seems preposterous. The Holy Spirit is the father, she says, a divine conception announced by the Angel Gabriel.

What? Are you off your medications, woman? Did you fall from a donkey and hit your head?

How would you have reacted? Joseph must have thought, “How dare you tell me a bizarre lie to justify your adultery!”

Think of the betrayal he felt. Scripture says Joseph was a righteous man; in his dealings with God and others, he had an honorable reputation. But we can be upstanding in the world’s eyes and still harbor secret malice, can’t we?

Not Joseph. Despite the pain of rejection, he showed amazing forbearance. He had every right to humiliate Mary. Under oppressive patriarchal law, he could have hauled her into public and stoned her, venting his hurt in a vengeful rage. Instead, he resolved to divorce her quietly, releasing her without shame.

Imagine him lying in bed that evening. In his mind he is already letting go, grieving the loss, envisioning his life without a companion. His heart is heavy as he nods to sleep. And in a dream that very night, an angel tells him Mary’s story is real; Joseph will be stepfather to the Messiah.

None of what happened next would have occurred without the calm forgiveness, acceptance, and protection of this man of God. He has much to teach us.

We can be so quick to retaliate. When someone gossips about us, we return the foul favor. In arguments, we match harsh words with vitriol of our own. If people judge us unjustly, we nurse resentment, letting it fester in our hearts.

In short, we like to get even.

This Advent, let’s honor Joseph by practicing restraint, even if we have the right to do otherwise. Let’s refuse to criticize our critics. Let’s counter with soft words in a conflict. Let’s learn the sublime practice of praying for those who hurt us.

Romans 3:25 describes God’s purpose in sending Jesus. “God did this to demonstrate God’s righteousness, because in God’s FORBEARANCE God left our sins unpunished.”

We last hear of Joseph when Jesus is 12 years old. The older man did not live to see his son fulfill destiny. But remember those final moments of Jesus on the cross as he utters “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

What miraculous forbearance! And Jesus learned it not only from his Heavenly Father, but his earthly one, a Nazarene carpenter named Joseph.

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