It is amazing how two people can watch the same thing and yet see it differently. No two people are alike so no two people see things exactly in the same way. One will hear the words and the other will see the actions. One will notice the beauty and the other will see the blemishes. So much of who we are and what we have experienced dictates how we see the world around us. The culture we were raised in, the region we are from, the language we speak, the rules we were raised with, the colour of our skin, the money in our bank account, our education, our belief or unbelief in God all impact how we interpret what we see. It is one reason why no one should journey through life without friends. Having people we trust share with us how they see things brings greater dimension to our lives.
One thing we should accept from this understanding of perception is that we are limited in our interpretation of things and events. It is impossible for us to have all the facts and what facts we do have may be limited in scope. We can interpret things according to our limitations of what is and is not possible. We can interpret them according to the restrictions of our culture and upbringing. But we should always acknowledge that these interpretations are limited by what we know and who we are.
As we continue to read through Matthew 1 we see that Joseph finds himself in one of these situations. We are told that he is engaged to be married to a young girl named Mary. From our understanding of the culture at that time Mary was probably about 14 years old and Joseph would have been in his 30's. He appears to be a well respected member of the community, caring and compassionate. Image the shock of finding out that the woman you are about to marry is pregnant, and you know it is not yours. I can only imagine the range of emotions he would have felt but betrayal would have been the top of the list. Whether it was to save himself or Mary embarrassment, Joseph decided to make it a quiet divorce. Some say it was to keep Mary from being stoned but it could also be seen as saving his own reputation. Regardless, Joseph saw only one explanation for this pregnancy.
Of course it was the only explanation. Would you have thought any differently in his place? Sure, Mary is telling some story about an angel and God but who could blame her for trying to save her own neck? Joseph was limited in his interpretation of this event by the limitation of his knowledge and experience. God was about to do a paradigm shift with Joseph's perspective of life and the world:
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1:20-21)
After this Joseph took action, trusting God's decision:
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. (Matthew 1:24)
Now don't you think for a moment this was easy. Just as Joseph had judged by appearances so would everyone in his community. The engagement was ended early and Joseph took Mary into his home early. This was highly unusual and as her belly grew you know those tongues were wagging. In order for Joseph to obey God he had to be willing to lose his reputation and now live in his community under a cloud of suspicion. However, there was a valuable lesson here for Joseph and one that we could all profit from learning. One of the most life changing realities of God that we can learn from Scripture is this:
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,"
declares the LORD.
"As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9)
We need to learn and accept that we have great limitations to our interpretations of all things in our lives. This is the reason we are dependent on the Spirit for guidance and insight. We are limited by our culture but our God is greater than our culture. Many of the rules and boundaries in our lives are there because of culture which we assume are supported by the Word of God. Now, because people no longer study the Word for themselves, we make assumptions and judgments about things that God is doing, coming against him when we think we are supporting him. We no longer have angels that visit us to set us straight because we have the Holy Spirit but when we allow our culture and prejudices to speak louder than the Spirit we can find ourselves at odds with God.
Being willing to let go of our culture can be a frightening thing because it places us in the same situation as Joseph, being left vulnerable to people who remain limited by culture. Could this be the reason Jesus said we would be hated by the world, because we are willing to be guided into a greater perception of life and the universe? Consider how Jesus took people from the restrictions of our actions to the greater understanding of our heart:
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell." (Matthew 5:21-22)
Jesus did the same thing when it came to the forgiveness of sin. When he was challenged on his authority to forgive Jesus put it into perspective:
Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...." Then he said to the paralytic, "Get up, take your mat and go home." And the man got up and went home. (Matthew 9:4-7)
Jesus spent most of his time stripping away the restrictions of culture and opening people to the truth of God. It should be enough for us to say that we don't know very much about very much. For interpretation, insight and understanding we need to lean heavily upon the Word of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to insure that our culture is not twisting the our perspective of God's work. Let us take to heart the lesson Joseph learned and the sage advice of Solomon:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6)