Connections 12.22.2019: A Righteous Man

Matthew 1:18-25

Our lesson text says that Joseph was “a righteous man” (v. 19).

We could use more righteous men these days.

I say that as a man. I’m allowed to talk about my own kind.

Men catch a lot of flak these days. We deserve much of it.

I hate to put so much pressure on them, but I suspect that women will have to get us out of the mess we’ve made. I hope we men will partner with you in doing so. And I hope we’ll do so with good will, good intentions, and humble spirits.

Women may have to save the world, but righteous men—men who are righteous in the way Joseph was—could help.

So what makes Joseph a righteous man? Let’s go to the text.

Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. This is unsettling news because they haven’t consummated their marriage relationship. So Joseph naturally assumes that Mary has been unfaithful.

This isn’t necessarily a case of Joseph having several possibilities to choose from and jumping to the worst possible conclusion. Given the circumstances, he probably can’t imagine what other explanation there could be.

On the other hand, one wonders if Joseph talked to Mary about the situation. The text doesn’t say, but we’d like to think he did.

While we should exercise caution in trying to harmonize Luke and Matthew’s narratives—we should take each Gospel’s particular approach to the story on its own terms, since the writers had reasons for telling it in the ways they did—we know that Mary has a story to tell. She knows she is pregnant. And she knows she hasn’t had sexual intercourse.

To throw caution to the wind for a moment, we might observe from Luke’s narrative that she has received divine insight into why she is in the situation she’s in.

If Joseph asked Mary what happened—and we hope he has—then he must either accept or reject Mary’s story.

If she told it, he evidently didn’t believe her.

We live in a time when we are encouraged to believe women when they tell us what has happened to them. Such encouragement is warranted. We should take them seriously. Believing should be our impulse, not skepticism.

Granted, the story Joseph is asked to believe is incredible. It may even be unbelievable.

So Joseph has to decide what to do. We wish he had believed Mary’s incredible and unbelievable story, but he didn’t.

The text tells us that we see Joseph’s righteousness in the way he decides to implement his decision.

Life in many ancient cultures, including that of first-century Palestine, revolved around honor and shame. If Mary has committed adultery, then Joseph has the right to divorce her publicly. By doing so, he could move toward restoring his honor. How would he restore his honor? He would do so by taking Mary’s honor away from her. His replenished honor would come at the price of her increased, and perhaps insurmountable, shame.

Matthew tells us that Joseph doesn’t do that: “[Mary’s] husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (v. 19).

We probably think of a righteous man as one who does right and stands up for what is right. We may even think of a righteous man as one who stands up for himself and refuses to be humbled or shamed.

But Joseph shows us that a righteous man goes beyond doing “the right thing.” He shows us that a righteous man stands up for what is right in a better way. Compassion and kindness condition his righteousness.

Joseph wants to do the right thing. Maybe he even feels like he has no choice but to do what his culture regards as the right thing, namely, divorcing Mary.

But he won’t do it in a cruel way. He won’t act in anger. He won’t heap contempt on Mary.

Joseph sees the light when an angel visits him to explain. Once the angel tells Joseph the truth of the matter, he and Mary establish a home in which they will receive and raise the child who will be the Savior.

In doing so, Joseph accepts some damage to his reputation, but probably not as much as Mary experiences. Whatever they must bear, they will bear it together.

Joseph is righteous because he acts with humility, with grace, with kindness, and with compassion.

We could use more such righteous men these days.


  • Put yourself in Joseph’s place. How would you respond?
  • How is Joseph a model for all of us, regardless of our gender or any other personal identifiers?
  • Joseph received guidance from an angel that visited him in a dream. Where are we most likely to receive moral, ethical, and spiritual guidance from?
  • How do we experience Jesus as Emmanuel? What does it mean for him to be “God with us”?
  • How can we practice Joseph’s style of radical obedience?

Reference Shelf

Matthew 1:18 goes on to add that Mary was found to be with child by means of the Holy Spirit. This must actually mean that Joseph found her to be pregnant, though he did not know it was by holy means. Matthew then is reminding his audience that it was by action of God. The action in v. 19 is clearly precipitated by an assumption on Joseph’s part that something unholy had happened. Joseph did not wish to subject Mary to the scandal of a public breaking off of the betrothal, which in early Judaism was as much a legally binding and formal matter as a divorce is today (see m. Qidd. 1:1). Yet Joseph’s allegiance to God’s word and will came first. What was he to do?

Joseph in fact is depicted as the model disciple and follower of God’s will, for he gives up a Jewish father’s greatest privilege (siring his firstborn son) in order to obey God’s will (cf. 1:24). Verse 20 suggests, however, that Joseph was afraid to take Mary as wife once she was pregnant. This is an understandable fear in an honor and shame culture where his whole family’s reputation could be ruined by his being a willing participant in scandal. The angel reassures Joseph that what Mary has conceived is from the Holy Spirit. While Mary will give birth to the child, Joseph will assume what was normally the father’s duty of naming the child (cf. Luke 1:59-60). The name given the child is Yeshua, or as we would call it, Joshua. This name means “Yahweh saves” and foreshadows the role the Son of David was to play. Notice that we are already told in v. 21 that he will “save his people from their sins.” First of all, this makes clear that Jesus’ mission is to an Israel that is lost or has gone astray. But what would it mean to save them from their sins? Does this mean save them from the consequences of their sins (e.g., judgment), or does it mean save them from the effects of their sins on their own lives and the lives of those close to them by transforming them? It probably implies both. They are not merely saved from the “wrath to come” but saved from their own worst instincts and behaviors and their consequences by graciously changing these instincts and behaviors.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 45-56

Joseph is described as “a righteous man” (1:19), which classifies him as a faithful observer of the law (see Luke 1:6, Zechariah and Elizabeth). He responds conscientiously to news that his betrothed has become pregnant by planning to divorce her. He knew that he was not the father of the child, which meant that either Mary had been seduced (Deut 22:23-24) or violated (Deut 22:25-27). As a righteous man, he could not take Mary as his wife, for to do so, according to the law, was to tolerate evil in your midst. But his plan to divorce Mary “quietly” (1:19) reveals that as a righteous man he was also concerned about mercy. He is the model of the law-observant Jew who blends submission to the law with compassion for others (see 9:13; 12:7). He could have insisted on a public trial to determine whether or not Mary had prostituted herself (Deut 22:13-19), was seduced (Deut 22:23-24), or was raped (Deut 22:25-27) and would have saved himself the obligation of paying out the amount of money he had pledged to her if she were divorced…. Instead, he chose not to expose her to public disgrace.

David E. Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001) 22-23.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.


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