Mercy and Forgiveness: Beginning Advent with Joseph’s example of mercy
By Karl A. Schultz
The Year of Mercy has ended, but its central theme continues in the upcoming Lectionary cycle, which concentrates on the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew employs stark, sometimes startling, language and imagery to convey the indispensable nature of forgiveness.
The Gospel begins with a concise characterization of mercy in the person of St. Joseph, who when confronted with the mystery of Mary’s pregnancy, chooses a path that integrates justice (adherence to the Law) and mercy (a less public and humiliating form of divorce) at great cost to himself. He was willing to share in the potential damage to his reputation ensuing from a discreet divorce from Mary. Contrast this with the selfish and retaliatory way the legal system and social pressures are often exploited today in response to the breakdown of a close relationship. Joseph demonstrates that there is another way.
The Gospel of Matthew bridges the Hebrew and Christian covenants. Along with John the Baptist, Joseph serves as an important transitional figure. For Matthew, he is the model Jew and disciple, a man who holds the letter of the law in a healthy tension with its spirit.
As both tradition and the modern pontiffs have asserted, Joseph’s influence on Jesus was significant. His just and merciful character was formative for Jesus, as it can be for us. Joseph taught Jesus and us that actions speak louder than words. None of his words are recorded in Sacred Scripture, but his pivotal actions are profoundly chronicled.
The time immediately before and after the revelation given to Joseph were decisive moments. According to the law, Joseph was entitled to potentially vindicate himself at Mary’s expense, and in the process subject her to public humiliation for an insidious offense against marital fidelity. We don’t know what ran through Joseph’s mind while contemplating Mary’s puzzling pregnancy, but we know how he responded. He chose mercy along with justice.
After being informed of Mary’s circumstances, Joseph had two further decisions to make. First, should he believe the angel? Second, should he obey the angel, for to do so would involve great hardship and risk? What a way to begin marriage and family life, under a cloud of scandal and in an emergency evacuation! The Holy Family started out as refugees in an unfriendly land. Mary and Joseph understood firsthand the trying circumstances of life.
The emphasis upon mercy continue throughout Matthew’s Gospel, resurfacing in such places as the Lord’s Prayer, where the injunction to forgive our neighbor is reinforced by Jesus (Mt 6:15), and in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt 18:21-35), where Jesus warns that we will be subjected to eternal torment if we do not forgive our neighbor from the heart.
Matthew’s emphasis on morality and mercy culminates in the Last Judgment scene (cf. Mt 25:31-46), in which the just and merciful attain paradise while the unmerciful face eternal punishment. Of all the evangelists, Matthew uses the most foreboding apocalyptic imagery to convey the eternal consequences of (im)morality
As we begin Advent and a new liturgical year, let us remember the model of St. Joseph, who in dramatic contrast to many of the scribes and Pharisees embodied the essence of Judaism as a foundation for Christianity. Just as Mary is the first disciple in Luke’s Gospel, so Joseph is in Matthew’s Gospel.
Joseph was willing to endure the suffering that accompanies a just and merciful life. A more tender love for the opposite sex, reciprocated by Mary’s humble receptivity, can scarcely be imagined. In his synthesis of justice, mercy, obedience, humility and chastity, St. Joseph is a model of both masculinity and discipleship. Both sexes can look to him for inspiration and consolation. Whenever we are tempted to nurse or avenge the hurts and resentments from our past, let us remember the example set by the Holy Family.
Mercy and forgiveness are literally a matter of (affirming and restoring) life and death. May we avoid the obtuse arrogance of the unforgiving servant, who immediately forgot how much he had been forgiven. The fact that he is only given one chance should be ample warning that divine mercy and forgiveness come with an incumbent responsibility, and that vengeance and resentment can be fatally toxic.
When we humbly remember that God has forgiven us for incalculable offenses, we recognize the duty and liberating opportunity to extend that forgiveness to others, and can experience the inner freedom and peace beyond understanding that Jesus offers us (Phil 4:7) as a precursor of the most welcoming words imaginable: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34).
Karl A. Schultz is the director of Genesis Personal Development Center in Daytona Beach. He is lecturer and author on biblical spirituality. Visit his website at www.karlaschultz.com or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.