“Joseph her husband was a righteous man…” (Matthew 1:19)
Joseph often gets somewhat overlooked in the Christmas story. Much of the attention, other than Jesus himself, gets put upon Mary and for good reason. Joseph is there in the nativity scene, but compared to the angels, shepherds and wise men, he seem present but not really much of a participant.
I think that’s unfair to Joseph. While he doesn’t have a magnificent song like Mary does in Luke 1, or political intrigue like the wise men, Joseph has a significant contribution to the story.
We are introduced to Joseph at the start of Matthew’s gospel and the key thing we are told about him is that he is a righteous man. We can sometimes be suspicious of that term ‘righteous’. When we come across it in modern life it can often mean ‘self-righteous’ – that smug self-satisfaction that people can cultivate that makes them feel better than other people.
We are told Joseph is a righteous man because he wanted to divorce Mary when he finds out she is pregnant. That might sound a lot like self-righteousness at first glance! But Matthew explains that Joseph’s righteousness expresses itself in wanting to divorce Mary quietly, so that she avoids public disgrace. Potentially he saw a way to quietly slip away so that Mary could marry the man who, he assumed, she had got pregnant by.
Joseph is a righteous man. He wants to do what is right by God’s law, but also do what is right and helpful for Mary. He is clearly a caring man who, even when he thinks he has been wronged, wants to ensure that others are looked after.
Then comes the visit of the angel in a dream, and Joseph’s life is turned upside down. The angel explains that Joseph hasn’t been cheated on by Mary. Instead, the Holy Spirit is at work to bring to birth the saviour of the world. He is to play a part in that by taking Mary to be his wife, to look after her, provide for her and, along with her, to parent the Creator of the universe.
Joseph’s story is recorded in a very matter of fact way: “When Joseph work up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him…” (Matthew 1:24) Joseph was a righteous man. The righteous, law-following thing to do in this circumstance would have been to divorce Mary, preferably quietly. But Joseph was a righteous man. He knew that obedience to God, through the angel’s message, was the greater act of righteousness.
No doubt there were whispers and comments about Joseph and Mary’s marriage. No doubt there were accusation and aspersions cast about the parentage of their little child. But Joseph did not heed the gossips. He knew he was doing what God had told him to do. Joseph was a righteous man.