When Jesus’ mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. – Matthew 1:18-19
The first thousand times I read this passage, I thought it meant that Joseph’s plan to reject Mary privately rather than publicly was proof of his righteousness. Maybe that’s right, or at least what the writer of the words meant to convey.
Over time though, I started to consider how his rejection would feel to Mary, or to the child she’d raise alone in desperate conditions. Would Joseph seem righteous to them for abandoning them in the ‘nice’ way? The fact that someone could have been more cruel, but wasn’t, is generally not much consolation to the ostracized and penniless.
And so I started to wonder, what if Joseph’s ‘righteousness’ was less about his sense of moral duty, and more about his sense of himself?
It is, after all, quite easy to imagine a man who is respected in his community and protective of his reputation, having not just his feelings hurt but his pride wounded by the discovery of his fiancee’s pregnancy. Even if he believed Mary’s promises that she’d been faithful to him, and that this moment in their story together was greater than he’d ever comprehend, you can see how Joseph, like most men, might still doubt himself, resent his wife, and worry about what other people would think. What would having a pregnant bride in that day and age say about him?
And so, being a righteous man, he planned to dismiss her.
Greed is often about selfishness, hoarding resources, not sharing. But sometimes it’s more about self-importance, an inability to tolerate threats to one’s personal narrative or community standing; an unwillingness to the bear the personal cost of caring for another’s well-being.
In Jesus and Mary and Joseph’s story, God needed to intervene, and speak plainly with Joseph: “Take Mary as your wife… the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Worry and pride and pain and greed are powerful forces – they shape how we relate to one another, when we are willing to extend grace and trust, whether we will provide help and allow our own vulnerability. But it turns out that, because of the love God has for the world, it is possible to move toward generosity and bravery, even amidst daunting circumstances.
Joseph, who chose and built a life with Mary and Jesus, who in the end was not merely privately righteous but morally courageous, will tell you it’s true.