The True Righteousness of One Man

By Rev. David Wilson Rogers |  December 21, 2013

            Many people are simply fearful of being the subject of a small town scandal because the gossip can be cruel. Perhaps few people knew this reality as well as Joseph.

            Scripture tells us that Joseph was engaged to Mary when she was found to be pregnant. In that day, when a couple was to be wed, the families of the bride and groom made necessary arrangements for a formal ceremony called, in Hebrew, erusin. During this formal and legal ceremony, the two are lawfully engaged as they publically declare their intent to be married and it held the full legal status of marriage.

The couple must then take an entire year to prepare for marriage. The groom prepares his house, often by adding a new room to his father’s house, and secures his finances for the responsibility of taking on a wife. Likewise, during that year she is to prepare herself to leave her father’s house and become his wife, as well as secure the acceptable dowry for the wedding. During this year-long time of preparation for marriage, the couple is forbidden from any form of intimate communication or contact. If they are together at all, it was required that they never be left alone and only speak in public. In some cases the bride and groom would never be together or have any communication at all. Should one of the members of the betrothed union violate the terms of the legally binding engagement, it would be considered equal to adultery.

Having entered into this covenant with Mary (or quite possibly her father on Mary’s behalf) the pregnancy placed Joseph in a very awkward religious and social position. The obvious implications of her pregnancy indicated that somebody had violated the strict legal, religious, and social customs that governed both marriage and sexual relations.

The expected, and politically correct, response for a man in Joseph’s situation was simply to have her publicly disgraced as an adulteress. Depending on the severity of the accusations he brought against her, the punishment could range from banishment to stoning. Since Joseph knew he was not the father and nobody would believe the word of an unmarried pregnant woman, few would have questioned Joseph’s righteousness in having her put away and disgraced.

Scripture tells a different story. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Joseph was a truly righteous man and because of this, he chose to quietly and respectfully terminate the engagement so as to minimize her public disgrace. In making this unconventional choice, given the cultural and religious expectations of his day, Joseph would not be taking the proper religious and legally defendable approach. Rather, Joseph’s decision is one that would have exposed him to the gossip-ridden scrutiny of small town community. One can just imagine the gossip. “Yeah, that Joseph, the wimp! His bride-to-be goes out and disgraces their engagement and he just lets her go without even so much as a public humiliation. The little tramp doesn’t deserve such kindness. What’s wrong with Joseph?”

Later, in a dream, God’s full plan is revealed so Joseph chooses to honor both Mary’s virginity, as well as his own covenant to the engagement. Then, in an act that was sure to garner even more public scrutiny, Joseph names the new born child and raises him as his own. Compassion, grace, and humility demonstrated Joseph’s righteousness rather than strict religious and social fidelity. We know little about the earthly father that raised our beloved savior, but what we can easily see that Joseph taught Jesus Christ that humility, compassion, and grace is far more important than maintaining proper religious and social custom.