When the Christmas story is told, we hear mostly about Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Throughout church history, Mary has been venerated, as she should be. Joseph, her husband, however, has often been relegated to little more than a footnote to the story.
But Joseph was one of the most righteous men who ever lived. Now when most modern Christians think of a “righteous man,” they think of things like being a good husband, a patient father, a trusted and successful employee who lives a good clean life (doesn’t “smoke, drink, chew or run with those who do,” as the old saying goes), and so on.
I have no doubts that Joseph was upright in the area of personal piety. But the Bible gives us a much deeper peek at what a righteous person is and how he or she reacts to certain situations. Consider Matthew 1:19-20: "Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to put her away quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Matthew says that because Joseph was a righteous man, he chose not to publicly disgrace and shame Mary, even though (according to his knowledge at the time) she deserved it.
Now consider this question: How many Christians today would react the same way that Joseph did if they were standing in his shoes?
Joseph wasn’t thirsty for blood. He didn’t justify the act of bringing public disgrace upon Mary. Instead, he took the high road and put her away privately, lest she face public humiliation and shame.
I’m sure Joseph’s blood boiled when he heard that the woman he committed to marry was pregnant, and not by him. But because he was a righteous man, he showed mercy. He treated Mary as if he were in her own shoes and was guilty of what he had assumed she did.
Perhaps Joseph thought to himself what his step-son would say to a woman worthy of death almost thirty years later, “He who has never sinned, let him cast the first stone” (John 8:7). Perhaps after the initial rage subsided, Joseph took a good, hard look at his own life and recalled the many times where he himself missed the mark. Perhaps he reflected on his lineage and recalled the many grievous sins that his own kinfolk committed in the past (see Matthew 1:1-16; Joseph’s lineage is populated by those who committed murder, adultery, prostitution, etc. This was the very lineage that God the Father chose for His perfect Son, Jesus).
In Joseph, we find no hints of self-righteousness. And therein do we find a wonderful definition of righteousness. It is to react like Jesus, living void of self-righteousness. As I’ve often said, there is only one Person in the universe who has the right to be self-righteous, and He isn’t.
Consider for a moment the people whom Jesus spent most of His time with, whom He ate with (which in that day was a sign of union, friendship, and acceptance), whom He showed mercy to, whom He extended grace to, and whom He removed shame from.
These were the very people who the religious leaders of His day regarded as the most sinful. Their sinful deeds being at the top of their lists. This is why Jesus earned the title “the friend of sinners.”
Some specific examples:
• He broke bread in the home of a tax-collector who was siding with Rome in oppressing his own people (Zacchaeus).
• He completely forgave a woman caught in the act of adultery.
• He allowed a prostitute to anoint His feet with her hair in the presence of judgmental Pharisees.
• He communed with and later broke bread with a multiple-divorcee who was living in sin.
Granted, all of these people later repented of their sins and followed the Lord, but Jesus loved them, received them, and their sinful lives didn’t put Him off. The harshest word He said to any of them was “go and sin no more.”
Now . . . shift gears and look at the sins that literally made Jesus angry and provoked Him to issue hot-boiling, scathing rebukes. It was the sins of self-righteousness. And it was aimed at those who sought to shame and humiliate others because of their wrong-doing.
The pure and spotless Lord Jesus Christ turned the pyramid upside down. Jonathan Edwards rightly said, “The deceitfulness of the heart of man appears in no one thing so much as this of spiritual pride and self-righteousness.”
Back to Joseph.
Note that Matthew says that while Joseph was considering doing this righteous deed (putting Mary away privately to spare her public disgrace), the angel appeared to him.