Have a Righteous Christmas, Joseph Style: A Meditation on a Saint in a Season of Sexual Misconduct

Matthew 1:18-25
“Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.. “
“…When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had given birth to a son, and he named him Jesus.”

Joseph, like any groom, has a minor role to play in the unfolding Christmas story. After this text in Matthew, he quickly fades to the background. The drama is really all around the bride, Mary, and of course, the baby to be called “Immanuel”–God with us. Joseph is barely ever mentioned in the Bible—he never even utters a recorded word. But I want to propose that we have much to learn from Joseph.

Especially in that one short phrase: “Joseph was a righteous man” (Matthew 1:19).

Photo from pixabay. Joseph the Righteous.

One clear contrast to Ordinary Joe—because that’s what he is, a poor working class man—are the monarchs in the background of the Christmas story: King Herod and Caesar Augustus. The impressive men with the robes and crowns, using their power to manipulate the plot so it bends towards their own self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. They hunger and thirst for prestige and praise. They are the foil to Joseph: the unrighteous men of this ancient drama.

This contrast of characters is critical for our world today, which stands in a deep moral crisis. Its not just the credibility of politicians that is in question, or that Hollywood ethics are lacking while celebrities have become the saints of our age. The crisis that hits closer to home for Christians is that the church itself has been exposed to be morally corrupt.

Let’s just focus on male leaders for now, in keeping with the text. It’s dizzying just how many Christian men have been unrighteous, even reprehensible in their leadership roles in Christian organizations. Because of a book I wrote on him and his church, I am devastated that ex-Meeting House pastor Bruxy Cavey has charges against him of clergy sexual abuse. It calls to mind another ex-campus pastor friend of mine who also fell into disgrace. The long list of sullied names covers the theological spectrum from Ravi Zacharias to Jean Vanier to Mark MacDonald. That’s just a few of the Canadians! I won’t mention those from foreign countries or from other cultural sectors, but the list is long. Too long.

These popular, powerful men were hungering and thirsting, but not for righteousness. Joseph, it seems, was tuned differently. We are told quite bluntly that he was a righteous man. If you think this is just petty moralizing, you’re wrong. It’s nothing less than a salvation issue because righteousness is what the Bible is all about, based on God’s character, which is revealed in creation order, the liberation of God’s people, the commandments, the prophetic cries for justice, the cross, and ultimately, judgment day and universal shalom. This righteousness of God begins in the human heart and home, like the holy family of the gospel in Matthew: father, mother, child.

What if we said, “Have a Righteous Christmas!” instead of “Merry Christmas”? Try it and see what response you get. Because the first Christmas was a righteous one as much as it was merry.

“A Righteous Man, Who Can Find?”

You might know the final chapter of the book of Proverbs, chapter 31, asks a pointed question: “A woman of valiant character, who can find?” Today, we need a Proverbs 32, that will answer the complementary question, “A man of righteous character, who can find?” This quest is not first of all about being right, as in correct thinking. We are talking about doing right. This is about behaviour, actions, our personal practises.

If you look at the Greek word used in Matthew 1:19 that is often translated as “righteous,” you will see that a lot has been written on this word, and it’s been translated in different ways in dozens of Bible versions. The Greek word is dikaiosune, related to the Hebrew word tsedeq, and it’s a rich word that we can say ultimately means “behaviour conforming to the demands of the covenant” (N.T. Wright). Someone who does right by the commands of God.

The word really has lots of colours and textures and is normally translated mostly in two English directions: “righteousness” as in the translation above (NRSV) or as “justice” as in Matthew 6:33 “Seek first the kingdom and his justice” (Julia Smith Version 1876). What direction the meaning should go in any New Testament passage should depend on the context of the verse. So interpreters make judgements which English word to use in the New Testament.

What follows is an exercise in evaluating whether Joseph’s character and actions more about righteousness or justice. I’m going to examine both terms in the context and speculate about which may be more true to the story. I’ll add in illustrations from the novel Les Miserables by Victor Hugo to dramatize the options.

1. Righteous Joseph

I note that 23 translations of dikaiosune at BibleGateway.com of Matthew 1:19 read: “Joseph was a righteous man.” His behaviour conformed to the demands of the covenant, and this choice of terminology suggests it is about Joseph’s aligned relationship to God, like the first section of the 10 commandments. Other versions translate in similar fashion to say “Joseph was an honourable man” or “man of stern principle” or “man of noble character” or just “a good man” (6x). The NIV notably translates it to say, “Joseph was a man faithful to the law.” 

Commentator Kenneth Bailey says the next verse, verse 20 is better translated to say Joseph was angry about Mary’s pregnancy. Its not that Joseph calmly considered the situation: he says the best translation is “Joseph fumed over this matter” before the angel arrived, because he was a totally righteous man.

This interpretation, in its connotations of the word “righteous,” focuses on Joseph’s integrity: he was betrothed to Mary, and Mary was now pregnant with someone else’s child. This was a violation of covenant law, and so the righteous thing to do is to break the betrothal, as she has betrayed their promises to each other. Joseph’s relationship to God demands he separate himself from the sin of fornication and any consequent illegitimate children.

Let me say that when men and women today develop habits for life of faithfulness and personal integrity in their sexual relations before and after marriage, they are similarly seeking first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. They deeply desire to trust and obey and refuse behaviour or partners that lead them away from virtuous courtship practise. Such covenantal loyalty leads to flourishing and shalom for everyone, as faithfulness and respect becomes part of the culture. It becomes custom. This is not to suggest engagement or marital vows should never be broken, as that is exactly what Joseph was about to do. But his intentions indicate there is generally a holy stubbornness about insisting on upstanding moral behaviour.

This is the gospel’s summary: Joseph was a righteous man. His adopted son would later say, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be satisfied.”

Photo from Unsplash.

2. Joseph the Just

Now I’ll focus on the other side of dikaiosune, the part of it that leans towards justice, which is to say, the behaviour that conforms to the demands of the covenant that focuses on the second section of the 10 commandments—one’s love for one’s neighbour. Justice can be summarized as giving people their due (Tim Keller), recognizing that God’s commands directed special attention to what was due to the poor, widows, orphans, and refugees. On Biblegateway.com, 18 translations read: “Joseph was a just man.” That’s almost the same number as translated it as “righteous.”

So: you should be aware that the word “justice” never appears in the New Testament if your translation is King James. Never. The newer Voice translation (2012) has the word “justice” appear 48 times in the New Testament. That’s telling. Still, the King James does translate the word dikaiosune to read as “just” 33 times in the New Testament. In fact, the King James version of our text reads, along with those 18 other versions: “Joseph was a just man.” 

Joseph was a just man. Just I am going to suggest here is generally less about Joseph’s personal integrity and more about the relationships he negotiated around himself–how he sought to give each his or her due. Joseph wanted to release Mary from the betrothal, which is fair given her pregnancy, but he would do so in a quiet way, secretly, so not to make a public spectacle of her. In fact, that is the language of the King James, which says, “he was not willing to make her a public example.”

Maybe he was thinking of Deuteronomy 22, where certain acts of fornication and adultery can lead to a sentence of death by stoning, depending on the circumstances. In this case, justice comes in the form of mercy for a poor single mother (probably 16 they say), as Joseph does not bring charges before the Jewish court. Maybe he thought it wasn’t fair that the mysterious man involved was not being similarly called out. There are special laws in the case of rape in Deuteronomy 22 that only punish the man. We can only speculate.

Photo from Pxfuel.

I’m assuming here that “Joseph was a just man,” means a man of justice who unfolds the due consequences of adultery through divorce, as it is deserved, and yet also shows compassion towards the vulnerable, in this case, peasant teen Mary.

In our modern context, men and women today who insist on being treated with respect, and expect faithfulness in dating, engagement, and marriage, are growing towards being a “just” character. Additionally, when they deeply desire to protect the vulnerable (which is more often women) they are also demonstrating the qualities of being just. We could call this social righteousness if you like. Blessed are all who hunger and thirst for such justice, for they shall be satisfied.

So. Is the better translation, given the context, that Joseph was “righteous” or that he was “just”? Let me go a little further in my investigation in evaluating these English words in their usage today.

1. The Lost Language of “Righteousness”

Joseph was indeed a righteous man. He further showed this when he promptly obeyed what the angel commanded in his dream. He immediately did the right thing. 

In our culture, “righteous” would be the least preferred of the two tranlations, as “righteous” is quite noticeably a forgotten relic of an ancient piety, now used only flippantly in pop culture chatter. Consider that the quest for holiness, principle, and classical virtue is neglected or disdained, and just plain uncool. Sociologist James Davidson Hunter, in his book The Death of Character, says God was dead in our dominant culture in the 19th century, and character was entombed soon after in the 20th century. We have shifted from a highly industrious production culture to the individual expressionism of consumer culture, where celebrities are the icons.

A paradigmatic example is comedian Woody Allen, who when asked about the morality of his marriage to his much younger foster child replied, “The heart wants what it wants.” Being Jewish, Allen neglects Torah, which teaches that the heart needs to be formed and disciplined so it wants what’s good and godly. Such things seem to be considered impossible and in fact a forbidden thought today. We hunger and thirst for our Sovereign Self, the Big Me.

The need for a Proverbs 32 becomes even more urgent. “A righteous man, who can find?”

Of course, there is something lacking in the common notion of righteousness. “Righteousness” can carry an individualistic connotation, and some might say it could slide into a legalism, self-righteousness, and a focus on looking righteous rather than truly being righteous, and so by-pass the need for compassion, otherwise known as love for your neighbour. The righteousness of the Pharisees can load burdens on people that God would not demand. Such righteousness is ultimately unrighteous.

This makes me think of police inspector Javert in the story Les Miserables, who puts obedience to the law before everything else and the demands of justice are merely seen as giving each their due, especially those who have broken the law. In the end, not only witnessing mercy but experiencing it firsthand from Jean Valjean sends his heart into an internal collision, and he dies by taking his own life. Such legalistic righteousness leads to death.

We are looking for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, but a righteousness with justice and mercy, that leads to life rather than death.

2. What’s Missing in the Cry for “Justice” Today

Now justice. While the word “righteousness” has been lost in our dominant culture, the word “justice” is overwhelmingly present. Concern for the vulnerable, the rights of the marginalized has become a prophetic staple, along with the demand for government intervention. This echoes Biblical priorities; and yet something is missing in this contemporary enthusiasm. 

Conrad Grebel emeritus theologian Thomas Yoder Neufeld warns us in an article entitled “‘Righteousness and Peace will Kiss:’ The Peaceableness of the Super-Righteous”: “Justice has largely displaced righteousness, serving to distinguish … social justice … from ‘spiritual rapprochement’ between the individual and God.” A wall has formed between justice and righteousness, he says, calling it a “heavily fortified border.” Justice without righteousness excludes God, and without God, other idols take his place, and in our case, the Sovereign Self, the Big Me, has become our new sacred in North America. Justice can morph into entitlement, rebellion against institutional life, and ironically, the exclusiveness of those who think differently.

If we examined the story of Les Miserables, Enjolras and his friends represent those concerned with social justice, and while they are rightly challenging an oppressive regime that leaves people poor and starving, their approach means tossing out all the ancient furniture to build a barricade, shooting at government troops, which results in the death of a little boy, and many others, including Enjolras himself. Justice linked to revolution often ends in violence and death.

So here is my conclusion of the matter, which is in tune with the Amplified Bible, for which Matt. 1:19 reads: “Joseph was a just and righteous man.” Dikaisosune is both righteousness and justice at their best. We need to take down the wall between the two so that righteousness and justice can embrace to make peace (Ps 85:10). You can’t have social justice without righteous people. And there are no righteous people in an unjust society. Systemic evil sullies all within the system. Let me say add this: if the Church today wants to reflect the righteousness and justice of God’s kingdom, it must keep pursuing dikaiosune in its bi-directional fullness.

In Les Miserables, the ex-convict Jean Valjean, having experienced a deep mercy himself with the priest’s silver candlesticks, embraces both righteousness and justice as he consistently respects the law while protecting the orphan Cosette and sacrificing himself both for policemen and rebels. In him we find a type of fully righteous character and I would suggest it is Valjean’s humility that allows both righteousness and justice to be embraced in him.

St. Joseph’s Oratory. He was indeed a saint. But he wasn’t perfect. Photo from Flickr.

None Are Righteous

But wait. That’s fiction. We can assume Joseph was a righteous man, both good and compassionate, but he wasn’t perfect.

Similarly, we know our own failures and frailty well enough. Our foibles may not be as spectacular as those making scandals in the papers, but we are all sullied by at least private vices. Ecclesiastes 7:20 says, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” And Romans 3:10, quoting the Psalms: “There is none who are dikaiosune, not one.”

So we look for rescue not from famous Herods or Caesars, or even from ordinary Joseph, but from his illegitimate son, who paradoxically was for us, the righteousness of God. Through his death and resurrection, he shows complete covenant obedience, and by faith, even the most dastardly among us can be forgiven of our failures and have restored covenant with God, as we lean into his new kingdom of righteousness and justice. Put simply, justice follows God’s generosity in justification (Tim Keller).

As we sing in the old hymn: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

But wait once more: before we breathe a sigh of relief and become complacent in your covenantal status with God in Jesus Christ, that’s not the end of the sermon, and that is not the end of faith. Righteousness must be performed to be Biblical righteousness. You have to do right.

A PhD student named Kevin Emmert just published his dissertation on-line, entitled John Calvin and the Righteousness of Works (2021). There he says the Reformational legacy reacted too strongly against the Catholic focus on good works, and if you read John Calvin’s Institutes and commentaries closely, you’ll see that he did not only talk about human depravity, but actually taught that works-righteousness is a necessary part of your salvation. When texts like James say “faith without works is dead”—that’s scripture. 

So: assuming righteousness by faith in Christ is already established, Calvin believed a “second complementary basis for God’s acceptance is the actual righteousness of our lives.” (Quoting Hunsinger). This is based in God’s grace, and comes with the inner working of the Holy Spirit, but this works-righteousness is a necessary part of your sanctification and leads to God’s blessing.

So: A righteous man, who can find? Our world is littered with the victims of abusive men. Who–male or female–will seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and justice? How can we draw nearer this divine culture?

Here’s a simple thought: Don’t seek first fame, money, power, position, or popularity. Be an ordinary Joe, insofar as it is a participation in the righteousness and justice of Christ. Behave along covenant guidelines. Trust and obey the commandments. Live with integrity, and be active in the defence of the poor, the orphan, and widow. Be holy as God is holy, and resist oppressive systems as Christ challenged the powers. You will be blessed. Others will be blessed. 

How? Its about shaping the habits of your heart through your daily rituals. You will become what you practise today. Do you agree that we live in the midst of a moral crisis. Who do you want to be in this life? The temptations are great to follow your hunger and thirst for something other than virtue. Especially in Advent, we are surrounded by a sea of mindless materialism. But Advent can also be a season for friends and family.

In that light, I note that in his PhD acknowledgements, the now Dr. Emmert says, “First, I thank my parents, John and Carolyn Emmert, for raising me in a home that faithfully sought God’s kingdom and his righteousness. Dad and Mom, you set the trajectory of my life in more ways than you could imagine and have been more kind to me than I could ever recognize. May God reward you richly for your faithfulness.” And then last of all in his acknowledgements he addresses his two little boys, Jack and Charles. He writes: “My sons, I love you and pray that you will walk in righteousness and holiness.”

Training in righteousness, including social righteousness, begins at home, and should be reinforced in school and church. Christian faith is not about being authentic to your Self, but being formed into the righteous character of God.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to do what is right, for they will be satisfied. May justice and righteousness embrace in your own home, workplace or school, and in your church, wherever you reside on this pale blue dot of a planet.

Wieliczka Salt Mine Salt Sculpture. From Pixabay.

2 thoughts on “Have a Righteous Christmas, Joseph Style: A Meditation on a Saint in a Season of Sexual Misconduct

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