18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18-20, ESV)
Joseph – the just man and a true hero of the faith
Joseph is described as a “just man” (ESV) or, one who is “faithful to the law” (NIV, Matt. 1:19)
He is, perhaps, a lesser-known character in the Christmas Narrative. After all, the Virgin Mary, and the child who would save the world, are the heroes who most readily come to mind. In our Christmas nativity, we depict Joseph trudging wearily beside the donkey, which is carrying the heavily pregnant mother of our Lord. But, it seems to me, this just man, who was unwilling to allow his fiancé to be shamed, is something of a hero.
What does justice mean for you? Meeting out judgment is certainly part of it. We have a strong sense of justice, and feel an emotional revulsion towards injustice. Of course, we all love the idea of the police officer capturing all guilty people, that is, until they pull us over for breaking the speed limit!
In fact, even in our own day, various strong nations have struggled with the idea of being “policeman” to the nations around – protecting one’s own citizens and meeting out judgement to nations that err. Is that what justice looks like? Here are some possibilities:-
- Justice could mean retribution – a rigid interpretation of Jewish law dictated that Mary should be stoned to death. After all, she was carrying a baby out of wedlock, and Joseph knew that he had not fathered the baby. Even a more liberal interpretation of the law required her to be banished from the community.
- Justice could mean equitable distribution of punishment. This might not be meeting out the harshest sentence. Perhaps justice is shown being equitable and moderate. Middle Eastern Culture would have viewed this turn of events as deeply shameful. Joseph was not honour-bound to stick with Mary, and he would have been seen to be just if he shunned her.
Joseph chooses neither of these courses of action.
- Justice, as worked out by Joseph, is characterised as loving and compassionate. He interprets the demands of justice, possibly as described by the great Old Testament prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, as showing care for the weak, the downtrodden and the outcast.
Of course, we must not forget divine intervention in this whole narrative. An Angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, and encouraged him to accept his betrothed. This message shaped Joseph’s understanding, so he was persuaded that the baby being formed by God in Mary’s womb is a divine gift.
There are many personal and national implications for a view of justice that considers “compassion” alongside a strong sense of “right and wrong”. Here are a couple of my thoughts:
Compassion towards the outsider
There is a place for hearing the prophetic denunciation of our sin, which affronts a holy God. It is actually the big theme of Advent, this season in the Church’s year. People need to appreciate that they cannot just amble into the presence of God, particularly if God gets little more than a cursory look-in for the rest of their life.
However, Joseph’s actions show us that justice also demands that the Church’s message should be heard as one of compassion, mercy and love. Many people are put off by an assumption that the Church is there to condemn bad behaviour. However unfortunate this is, and, perhaps, despite how untrue this might be, this is a common perception. Are we best known for our compassion?
Care for migrants
Perhaps this is more contentious, but I also worry that nations (on both sides of the Atlantic) can appear to adopt a punitive approach to displaced migrants, rather than a compassionate one. For sure, there are some who are seeking harm to the nations they wish to enter. But many, if not most, are fleeing persecution and poverty.
Don’t forget, expectant parents, Joseph and Mary, were displaced, first to Bethlehem, then to Egypt. They became economic migrants, seeking help from a friendly host nation.
Maybe, from Joseph the just man, we can learn that our job is not to police, but to administer compassion and grace. Thankfully, we can leave the judging to our great God and get on with sharing the message of love, mercy and peace, which we find at the centre of the Christmas story, in our Saviour Jesus Christ the Lord.
With Christmas greetings, and hopes for peace
- I am grateful to Kenneth Bailey Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, for many of these insights into Joseph.