Joseph, the carpenter;
Joseph, a common man caught up in cosmic affairs;
Joseph, known to his neighbors, yet so unassuming that he sinks swiftly from biblical sight (indeed, this episode in the book of Matthew is the single personal story by which we might really meet the man);
Joseph, more mute in the Gospels than Zechariah since the words of the latter are recorded in talk and in song, but of the former there are no words remembered, none;
Joseph, husband of Mary, adoptive father of Jesus —
Joseph is a just man.
Because the Evangelists say so little about him, each word must bear enormous importance: Joseph is an “upright” man. For raising his child, papa Joseph shall be the very model of a righteous man—not so much in what he says as in what he does.
So, let’s examine it: what does he do? What is righteousness, as revealed in this brief episode of rights and choices regarding the life of another?
Mary was found to be with child…
Until the angel enlightens him with a holier explanation, the evidence speaks for itself. Mary has committed adultery. Betrothal binds two people as completely as marriage itself, even though they don’t yet live together or engage in sexual activity. So Mary has broken the Law, and the Law defines the consequence.
The woman charged with so serious a crime as adultery shall be stoned (Deut. 22:20-21).
He resolved to divorce her quietly. He has some legal discretion here, he chooses, Joseph chooses, not to accuse her of the crime, neither publicly nor privately. He will make no accusation at all, though he has every right to do so.
Evidently, one’s rights do not define one’s righteousness!
So this is what that righteous man is not: he is not self-centered! If Joseph suffers a blow to his ego, his masculinity, his stallion pride, we don’t see it. He shows no anger, no public outrage, no withering scorn. He doesn’t launch a campaign to smear her. He never says, “She owes me” or “She’ll pay for this,” as if her sin owes something to him. Mary’s adultery seems to have absolutely nothing to do with his reputation! And the righteous man does not view justice as something he receives for damages.
But today, in systems of law that ignore God altogether, and in hearts too filled with selves, folks demand justice as their own due! “She’ll pay for this” means “I’ll get that pay!” And we seek punishment to satisfy nothing but ourselves.
He resolved to divorce her……Though he chooses to do it quietly, he nevertheless chooses to divorce her.
Neither, then , is the righteous man the romantic hero who flouts laws and traditions for the sake of some higher individuality. Just as Joseph’s decision doesn’t center on himself, so it does not center on Mary or on their relationship as if that were the true nobility of humanity.
Joseph does not cry “Love conquers all!” He cannot make a small world of himself and his true love alone. He won’t (as do so many today) exchange the restraints of God and one’s culture for sweet, explosive emotions or for some fierce individuality that knows better than all the ancestors and all the parents combined.
No, Joseph’s righteousness (1) honors God and God’s will above the will of the self and even above the love of another. But it (2) is tempered by mercy.
Joseph resolves to keep the law, yes, but with such lenience that Mary’s life will not be destroyed in the process. There will be no accusation, no trial at all (though a trial by ordeal is indicated where no witness can be found, cf. Num. 5:11-31), no public shame, nothing to save the writ of divorce and two witnesses.
What, then, is righteousness? These two things: the obedience we owe to God and the mercy God grants us to grant others. It looks first to God, second to the other, never to the self — yet the self experiences a most holy peace in these relationships.