A Righteous Man
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Kermit the Frog once observed that it’s not easy being green. Mary’s husband would have sympathized, because he knew from his own experience that it’s not easy being Joseph.
He is the extraneous character in the nativity story, the one always standing off at a distance, leaning on his staff or wringing his hands, a look of concern and helplessness on his face, caught up in something beyond his understanding and just trying not to get in the way. He did such a good job of staying out of the way that you would be hard-pressed to find any well-known Christmas carols that even mention him. The ones that do, such as “The Cherry Tree Carol,” depict him as a jealous lover or a mildly stupid rube. Countless songs celebrate the virgin mother and child, the shepherds, the angels, the magi, and even fictional characters like the drummer boy and the animals gathered around the manger, which are never mentioned in the Bible but we assume were there. Well, Joseph was there, and he barely gets a mention, except as one more obstacle Mary had to overcome on her difficult path to becoming the Mother of God.
It’s hard enough to be a father when you actually had a role to play in conceiving the child. The mother is at center stage throughout the pregnancy, at the birth, and afterwards, and that is as it should be. Women, after all, do all the heavy lifting, so it would be taken ill if the father were to complain about the lack of attention. We have learned that it’s better just to stand off to the side and hand out cigars.
But for Joseph it was even worse. If the story he got from Mary and in that crazy dream he had was true, the child was not his. If the story wasn’t true, the child still wouldn’t be his, but at least he could feel some righteous indignation about it, and could take his anger out on her, either publicly or privately. He trusted Mary, though—in his darker moments he wondered if he was trusting or just gullible—and that dream had been so vivid, so convincing, that he let himself be convinced.
The result, however, is that he was doubly sidelined. He was the foster father of the son of God. A nonentity for carol composers, an afterthought to painters and storytellers, a nonfactor in salvation history. In fact, if St. Augustine had it right, Joseph was the reason a virginal conception was necessary in the first place. He represented sin, and had to be bypassed entirely for Jesus to be able to do his saving work.
Talk about a lonely feeling! Who could blame him if sometimes he felt sorry for himself?
Matthew gives Joseph much more attention in his telling of the nativity story than does Luke, and he even gives him the opportunity to exercise a degree of volition. The first and most important decision he must make is what to do about his pregnant girlfriend. Matthew says that before the couple lived together, and presumably before they had intimate relations, Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (v. 18). The way he says “from the Holy Spirit” makes it sound as though the child’s divine origin was a foregone conclusion, but from Joseph’s reaction we can see that it was not. He clearly suspected foul play, and made plans to “dismiss [Mary] quietly” (v. 19).
In that culture, marriage was a two-step process. Well before—sometimes years before—the actual marriage and consummation of the relationship came the betrothal. This was usually an arrangement between the parents of the couple, and it was a more formal, contractual relationship than an engagement in our day. Whereas one can break an engagement in our culture simply by walking away, for Joseph and Mary it would have been a more involved process. It would require a formal dissolution of the planned marriage—something approaching a divorce.
Matthew describes Joseph as “a righteous man,” which raises additional questions. What does it mean, for instance, to be righteous? If it refers to strict adherence to the Torah, then Joseph’s path was clear. Mary’s pregnancy, apart from the—let’s face it—hard-to-believe story of conception via Holy Spirit, constituted fornication, if not full-blown adultery. In the case of adultery, the Torah stipulated that both offenders were to be put to death. In actual practice, of course, it was often only the woman who faced this punishment, as we see in the famous case in John 8, when the scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman caught in adultery, demanding that she be stoned. (If she was caught in the act of adultery, where was the man? It takes two to tango, after all.) In a patriarchal culture, such misapplications of the law are, unfortunately, to be expected, and this confluence of law and culture left the righteous Joseph with few options. He could either divorce Mary or expose her to public shaming or even stoning.
Here we find another possible entry into the question of Joseph’s righteousness. If he were merely legalistically righteous, like the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew’s gospel, then his course would be clear: obey the Torah. Denounce Mary publicly and let the justice system take over. If she were spared, well and good. If she were sentenced to be stoned to death, he would miss her, but her blood would not be on his hands. She would be paying the price for her unfaithfulness and he would have the respect and sympathy of his peers and the comfort of knowing he had done the right thing. The upright thing. Everyone would acknowledge that he was indeed a righteous man.
But as Jesus would later warn his disciples, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). It may be, Joseph thought upon reflection, that righteousness does not only consist in strict obedience to the law. It may be that acting with compassion is a form of righteousness as well. So he settled on a compromise between public shaming and public divorce: he decided to dissolve the betrothal, but to do it quietly. If it could be done without fanfare and then Mary’s parents could get her out of town until after the baby was born, maybe they could preserve at least some of their family honor.
We moderns might quibble with the idea that by breaking off the engagement, in essence abandoning Mary at her moment of greatest need, was the righteous thing to do, but Joseph did not live in the modern world. He lived in a first-century culture where one’s behavior was sharply circumscribed by the code of honor, particularly male honor. He could really shoot himself in the foot if he failed to subject Mary to community discipline; not to respond appropriately when his soon-to-be-wife had apparently been sleeping around would represent a huge hit to his honor and that of his family. He could be hampering his future business prospects as well, and it would be hard enough to make a living as a carpenter without that dishonorable stain on his character.
So Joseph’s decision to dismiss Mary on the q. t. without any explanation to the community, knowing that soon they would all see the evidence of her infidelity for themselves as her belly began to swell, could be considered an act of real courage. Like Huckleberry Finn, who refuses to turn in the runaway slave Jim, even though his upbringing has assured him that such a refusal will consign him to hell, we might imagine Joseph wrestling with the decision and finally concluding, “Damn the consequences! I’m going to do the right thing by Mary.”
But then something happened that tipped the scales for Joseph, and moved him to an even deeper level of righteousness. We can’t know exactly what that something was; all we can say is that it was powerful and mysterious. So much so that Matthew appeals to both a dream and an angel to explain Joseph’s change of heart. He says, “Just when he had resolved to [dismiss Mary], an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’” (vv. 20–21).
Whether we take the angel-and-dream explanation at face value, or we imagine some other reason for Joseph’s decision, we have to acknowledge the sheer courage, trust, and faith it took him to make it. Teenage girls have been coming up with excuses for their pregnancies for centuries, but it takes some real hutzpah to blame it on God. And it takes either a complete moron or an extraordinarily righteous person to accept that explanation and stay in the relationship. We’re talking about an above-and-beyond-the-call kind of righteousness, a righteousness that dares to believe the unbelievable and then dares to face the public backlash for doing so. We’re talking about a kind of righteousness that comes from a heart of deep faith, commitment, and love, and that deserves to be recognized and applauded, not taken for granted or completely ignored.
Joseph deserves a standing “O.”
“When Joseph awoke from sleep,” Matthew tells us, “he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him” (v. 24). Just like that. It’s a perfect example of the biblical writers’ tendency toward understatement. Packed in those two short clauses is a world of meaning. Joseph’s decision would affect his life profoundly from that moment on, not to mention the life of Mary. Not to mention the life of Jesus, who wouldn’t have had a life at all if Joseph had righteously given Mary up to stoning. Not to mention the life of the whole world to this very second, because Jesus’s mission as described by the angel is to “save his people from their sins,” and Matthew emphasizes over and over throughout his gospel that not only the Jews but also the Gentiles are to be counted among “his people.” That means us. So I’d like to say, albeit belatedly, thanks, Joe.
Matthew has a thing for connecting his story of Jesus with the Hebrew Bible, showing how the events of his life represent the fulfillment of Scripture. Here he appeals to Isaiah’s oracle, “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us’” (v. 23). The original setting of this promise was in a time of strife. The armies of Israel and Aram were threatening Judah, and King Ahaz’s courage was faltering. The sign that Isaiah gave concerning Immanuel was a promise that before long—before the child learned to distinguish between bad and good—the danger would be past. Judah’s enemies would cease to be a threat; all Ahaz had to do was to hold on and trust in God. Deliverance would surely come.
For Joseph and Mary, the promise of Emmanuel, God-with-us, was that despite the turmoil and hardship Mary’s inconvenient pregnancy was sure to cause, God would also deliver them. The trials and tribulations they would go through in the coming months and years would not be the last word. All they had to do was to hold on and trust in God, and deliverance would surely come. In fact, by trusting in God and bringing the promised child into the world, they would be assuring that deliverance would come not only to them but to all people. The name the angel told Joseph to give the child says it all. Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Yehoshua, which means “Yahweh saves.” “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). God with us indeed.
Joseph didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he made the fateful decision not to divorce Mary, but Matthew gives us, the readers, a clue when he mentions that Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (v. 18, emphasis added). This was no ordinary embryo! The cells dividing and growing inside Mary’s womb represented God’s action to plant the seed of the reign of God in the soil of the world. As is so often the case, God chose to take this action in the most unlikely and unexpected of ways. An unmarried peasant girl and her put-upon fiance as the parents of the Savior of the world? It has just that flavor of ridiculousness that God seems to love.
The reign of God still comes to us in unexpected, apparently ridiculous ways. And we, like Joseph, have to choose how we will respond. He proved he was a righteous man not by doing the conventionally righteous thing—judging and punishing his bride-to-be for her supposed sins—but by believing her story and following through on his commitments regardless of the consequences. He recognized the faint outline of the coming reign of God and chose not to run away but to join in its movement, and in so doing helped color in that outline a little more.
Sometimes joining the movement of the Holy Spirit is difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to discern. Sometimes it looks like its exact opposite. The Bible says that unmarried girls who get pregnant have sinned and must be punished. But Joseph decided that the movement of the Spirit was in a different direction, and went ahead with the marriage despite the costs. The Bible says that those who engage in homosexual acts are sinners and must be punished. But we have sensed the Spirit moving in a different direction, and so we choose to welcome and affirm LGBTQ persons as beloved children of God and full members of our fellowship despite the costs.
Where else do we see the Spirit moving? Where else do we discern the outline of the reign of God? As we prepare to welcome Emmanuel’s birth, let us keep our eyes open to the signs of God-with-us in our midst. In the coming year, we may find that God is acting in unlikely and unexpected ways yet again. When we see those signs, may we have the courage and faith and tenacity to respond as Joseph did, with a righteousness that far exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, and that opens a space for the seeds of God’s reign to take root and grow, to the everlasting glory of God.