By Mike Ruffin
Matthew 1:19 says that Joseph was “a righteous man.”
We could use more righteous men these days.
I say that as a man. I’m allowed to talk about my own kind.
Men catch a lot of flak these days. We deserve much of it.
I hate to put so much pressure on them, but I suspect that women will have to get us out of the mess we’ve made. I hope we men will partner with you in doing so. And I hope we’ll do so with good will, good intentions, and humble spirits.
Women may have to save the world, but righteous men—men who are righteous in the way Joseph was—could help.
So what makes Joseph a righteous man? Let’s go to the text.
Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. This is unsettling news because they haven’t consummated their marriage relationship. So Joseph naturally assumes that Mary has been unfaithful.
This isn’t necessarily a case of Joseph having several possibilities to choose from and jumping to the worst possible conclusion. Given the circumstances, he probably can’t imagine what other explanation there could be.
On the other hand, one wonders if Joseph talked to Mary about the situation. The text doesn’t say, but we’d like to think he did.
While we should exercise caution in trying to harmonize Luke and Matthew’s narratives—we should take each Gospel’s particular approach to the story on its own terms, since the writers had reasons for telling it in the ways they did—we know that Mary has a story to tell. She knows she is pregnant. And she knows she hasn’t had sexual intercourse.
To throw caution to the wind for a moment, we might observe from Luke’s narrative that she has received divine insight into why she is in the situation she’s in.
If Joseph asked Mary what happened—and we hope he has—then he must either accept or reject Mary’s story.
If she told it, he evidently didn’t believe her.
We live in a time when we are encouraged to believe women when they tell us what has happened to them. Such encouragement is warranted. We should take them seriously. Believing should be our impulse, not skepticism.
Granted, the story Joseph is asked to believe is incredible. It may even be unbelievable.
So Joseph has to decide what to do. We wish he had believed Mary’s incredible and unbelievable story, but he didn’t.
The text tells us that we see Joseph’s righteousness in the way he decides to implement his decision.
Life in many ancient cultures, including that of first-century Palestine, revolved around honor and shame. If Mary has committed adultery, then Joseph has the right to divorce her publicly. By doing so, he could move toward restoring his honor. How would he restore his honor? He would do so by taking Mary’s honor away from her. His replenished honor would come at the price of her increased, and perhaps insurmountable, shame.
Matthew tells us that Joseph doesn’t do that: “[Mary’s] husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (v. 19).
We probably think of a righteous man as one who does right and stands up for what is right. We may even think of a righteous man as one who stands up for himself and refuses to be humbled or shamed.
But Joseph shows us that a righteous man goes beyond doing “the right thing.” He shows us that a righteous man stands up for what is right in a better way. Compassion and kindness condition his righteousness.
Joseph wants to do the right thing. Maybe he even feels like he has no choice but to do what his culture regards as the right thing, namely, divorcing Mary.
But he won’t do it in a cruel way. He won’t act in anger. He won’t heap contempt on Mary.
Joseph sees the light when an angel visits him to explain. Once the angel tells Joseph the truth of the matter, he and Mary establish a home in which they will receive and raise the child who will be the Savior.
In doing so, Joseph accepts some damage to his reputation, but probably not as much as Mary experiences. Whatever they must bear, they will bear it together.
Joseph is righteous because he acts with humility, with grace, with kindness, and with compassion.
We could use more such righteous men these days.