When I think of the quintessential “righteous man,” I think of someone out of a Marvel comic book. The superhero stands erect, chest high, face lifted to the sky with courage and resolve. Or I imagine a Gandalf-looking figure – Noah out of the Flood narrative – standing with the wind blowing fiercely against his face, long white beard blowing this way and that, but he is standing firm his ground. It is the man who stands stubbornly in his rightness. “No! I will not let my lips touch those of the wily vixen!” he says. “My hands shall do no wrong!” Old Testament style.
I don’t think I’m too off the mark. There’s no shortage of manly, masculine men in the Bible. I eat it up. My boys eat it up. If you want to build courage, read stories about courageous people. The Bible is full of them. But lest I veer too far into toxic masculinity, Scripture also calls “righteous” some of the meekest and mild, and one of the meekest of them all was St. Joseph.
One of the most beautiful expressions of that courageous meekness was in the part of the Nativity story when Mary told him she was pregnant. It is just a couple verses in all, but in that short little section, you see the kind of man he was. Mary, innocent, young Mary, told Joseph the plain truth: I am pregnant, and I have not had sex with anyone.
Joseph did not believe her for reasons I do not need to go into (see http://www.ncregister.com/blog/jimmy-akin/why-did-joseph-plan-to-divorce-mary). He had every right to stomp his feet and demand to know who the man was. He had every right to be indignant beyond belief. This was not only hurtful, it was embarrassing. Being engaged to someone at that time was almost as good as being married. From a modern perspective, as far as Joseph knew, Mary had been sleeping around before they had even begun married life together, and now she was trying to cover it up with the most ridiculous lie: God impregnated me.
That was one way Joseph could have dealt with Mary, but it was not the path he took. I imagine him looking at Mary as she tells him this unbelievable story – that an angel came to her, that her child would be God’s son, that she was still a virgin. And instead of anger, he feels sorrow and love.
The thing is, they were part of a patriarchal society. He will recover from this, but what about her? To stay with her would be wrong. He has his dignity, and depending on how you read the Law of the time, it demands that the man who got her pregnant own up to his responsibility to take care of her and the child, or worse, if taken to the extreme, this is grounds for capital punishment.
But there she is, trying to continue in marriage with Joseph. Clearly, whoever this other man is, he must have left. He was a coward and a cad. She is left to live with a scarlet letter on her chest for the rest of her life. “There goes Mary… single mom… cheated on her husband before the ceremony even happened. . . what a slut.”
Looking at her face, Joseph could not bear the thought of ruining a young girl’s life because she made a horrible mistake. In other words, when Joseph found out Mary was pregnant, the only person he thought about was her.
The best option seemed to divorce her, but to do it quietly. She would be free to make a good life, maybe in another town, without her reputation following her. No one would have to know.
In the Bible, a lot of people are called “righteous.” They do noble acts of courage and exercise enormous feats of strength with faith in God. And Joseph, after this time, we know, did end up marrying Mary and taking care of her and Jesus as they went down into Egypt as refugees and as they came back to Israel and remained together in Nazareth. I am sure he had many opportunities to prove his worthiness. But it is only in this passage and because of this act of mercy towards Mary that Joseph is described as righteous.
…Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. ~Matthew 1:19
I think we need a lot more of Joseph’s kind of righteousness. Should we stand for the truth? Absolutely. But if I cling to what is right without a hint of love, is it really right?
There is another Father and Husband whose heart echoes Joseph’s. I can’t help but think God chose Joseph to be His precious Son’s foster father in large part because Joseph’s heart mirrored in some small way His own. God, unwilling to expose us to public disgrace, disgraced Himself for us on the Cross.
It is not only our stubborn defiance of the wrong that makes us righteous. It is also our stubborn commitment to love.
©Jon Holowaty 2019, Drawing of St. Joseph: Marco Sete/Shutterstock.com