A Just Man
In our modern times, we think of being just as a legal term. Someone who is just practices justice. That reward is given to those who have earned or done well and punishment to those who have not. We expect judges and juries to operate like this in court cases. Bankers use such standards as they decide who to lend money to. Coaches and managers do this when selecting athletes to compete in games. Even in our Baptist Church Covenant, we pledge ourselves to be just in our dealings.
In this morning’s text, the definition of “just” goes further than our legalistic boundaries. Joseph, a carpenter in Nazareth, embodies the point that God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. This just man became the human surrogate father of the Son of the Father of everlasting mercy and eternal love. He played a role in God’s plan of salvation, in part, because of his character. If we are to be effective participants in the will and work of the Lord, I believe and our faith teaches, that we must change our definition of what it is to be “just” from our common, modern boundaries to the Biblical and Christian standard.
Joseph was the betrothed husband to a virgin. In ancient Judaism, virgin women served in the temple to assist the priest in their various duties. To maintain their sexual purity, they were given to community elders of good reputation past their sexual prime who were to be guardian/husbands. In early Christian tradition, it is said that Joseph was a widower who had sons birth his late wife. He was highly regarded by the priest in Nazareth for his obedience to the commandments and practice of the faith. So, the Virgin Mary was given to him not to bear children, but so that she would be able to continue to serve in the temple.
For Joseph, this was a bit unfair. Just because he was no longer in his prime did not mean he had no desires. Suppose he wanted another wife to bear him children as Abraham had Keturah after the death of Sarah? Even in our modern interpretation of the scriptures, what man wants to be engaged to marry a pregnant woman that he didn’t have sex with? In our sense of justice, no man, no matter how old he is, should enter such a marriage.
To be just as Joseph means putting aside natural desire for the sake of the greater good. Yes, you may be in love with your boyfriend or girlfriend and our society says that pre-marital sex is acceptable. But, the greater good is to define the relationship as committed for a lifetime in the eyes of the state and, most importantly, before the presence of God. It may be fair to pay an employee the bare minimum. But the greater good is that if you have people who are doing a good work you give them the best wages you can and still maintain a profit. Fairness is governed by popular opinion and legal standard. Later in this Gospel, Jesus would teach that even Gentiles and tax collectors will act according to these things in who they love and greet. The Pharisees and scribes have a standard of righteousness. Our definition of being just must go beyond these standards and expectations. Joseph understood how to be mindful of the greater good. He was a “just man.”
Legally, Mary should have been stoned to death for being found pregnant in her betrothal marriage. Being the husband, Joseph could have waged a complaint to the priest and ordered the stoning. This is a very cruel means of killing someone as the chief men or the whole community can gather around the convicted to throw heavy and large rocks at her. Anyone witnessing such a means of death would be frightened not to commit the same crime. For the sake of legal order in the community as well as fulfilling his desires for a wife that could bear him children, Joseph could have acted in our modern idea of justice and had her so punished.
But, would it have been just to have her punished if he didn’t know her story? For all he knew, some Roman soldier could have violated her. Perhaps she had some sort of debt and saw that prostituting herself would generate the needed money. Perhaps she was drunken or drugged by someone who wanted to seduce her. Does someone under these conditions deserve the maximum penalty? Did God strike down Cain for clearly killing his brother Abel? No, God spared Cain by giving him a seal of protection, yet still punished the murderer by driving him away from his loved ones. Joseph may have seen the mercy of God in the way He dealt with Cain and resolved to show that same mercy to Mary. To be “just” is to be like God; having the ability to punish without completely destroying the guilty. A “just” parent knows how to spank a child without abusing. A “just” parent knows how to firmly punish a teen-ager knowing that the child needs some room to grow into adulthood. The “just” Joseph has this same understanding that having Mary face the maximum penalty meant killing her and her unborn child. No good could come from that.
But, to have Mary put away quietly is very much like what God did with Cain. She would have to suffer being separated from the temple, the fulfillment of her betrothal status, the safety of Joseph’s home. She would have to live vulnerable to every attack of the enemies with no protection of her body and soul. Such a fate was not quite as bad as tortured to death. At least her life would be spared. And isn’t that how humanity was without salvation? Because of our Cain-like sinfulness, we are separate from the presence of God, the fulfillment of our relationship with him, and the safety of his kingdom. We are vulnerable to every attack of the enemy with no protection for our bodies and souls. Such a separation from our creator is bad enough. But it is not the final punishment, the ever burning pit of fire prepared for the devil and his angels. But, this is “just.” Joseph was a “just man.”
This “just” Joseph who put aside his own desires to accept a betrothal marriage and not seek the death of someone who may have been a victim herself was the kind of man who God chose to participate in the salvation of humanity. Joseph’s character mimics this Son that he would help raise and yet came before him. “I desire mercy not sacrifice. Go and sin no more.” Joseph was the surrogate father of a Son who, “being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.” Joseph’s sacrifice was a foreshadowing of the ultimate of sacrifice of the Son who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” By His death, the Son conquered sin and death. As He rose from the grave, the Son gives new life to all who believe and put their trust in Him. The Son denied and gave Himself to us for the greater good. Because of this, the Son “was given a name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of earth and those under the earth, and every tong should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.” And while His Real Father dwelled in heaven, the “just man” Joseph proved to be a worthy surrogate.
Let us seek to be worthy surrogates; to be just men and women. Let us set aside our desires, seek to preserve life, and look for the greater good to be done. By this character and lifestyle, Jesus dwells among and inside of us.