צדיק is the Hebrew word for “righteous,” and it is an adjective that the Gospel of Matthew uses to describe the foster father of Jesus (though he used the Greek word, δίκαιος). But it means righteous on the level of say a Moses or an Elijah. In other words, not just a good man, but a really, really, high level, holy man, like those paragons of holiness.
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,
but before they lived together,
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
That is my emphasis, see, as there was no italics or quotation marks on the copies of original manuscript. So why am I bringing this up on Christmas Eve?
Because John Janaro, who blogs at Never Give Up, wrote an excellent blog post with the title, Joseph Might Not Have Thought What We Think He Thought.
Remember that time I wrote a letter to St. Joseph, noting that since he isn’t recorded as ever saying a word in scripture, folks can practically make him into anything they want him to be? Well, that’s not quite the case. Folks in the know, and saavy with the ins and outs of ancient languages, know better.
I’m not saying that Janaro has deep language skills like that, but he knows a lot more about such things than Joe Six-Pack does. And taking a devout, dare I call it צדיק (?) approach to the passage read last Sunday, he engages in an exercise of theological speculation that brings light to an area that I personally never even realized was dark.
Take a look,
Let’s take a closer look at this text. Mary “was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” What does this mean? Exactly what it says (also in the Greek). Before Joseph took Mary into his home, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Once again, note well that does not say that she was “found with child and claimed that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” We might assume that the point here is that Mary was “found with child” and that Matthew just adds the Holy Spirit parenthetically. Is this assumption warranted? Let’s examine further and see if we really need these invisible parentheses.
Clearly, Mary is with child and Joseph wants to end the relationship. He has no choice but to divorce Mary, since the betrothal is already a binding legal commitment. But he doesn’t want to “bring shame” upon her (stoning to death and all that), so he decides to do it “quietly.” And all of these assumptions hinge on Joseph being a “just” or “righteous” man, which means that he is a man devoted to the Law (hence divorce) who is simultaneously a man willing to set the Law aside (hence “quietly”).
The quiet divorce is something of a head-scratcher. Our lectionary translation gives us something that is appropriately bumbling: “Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.” Since? Yet? He was righteous, but…? And while we’re at it, let’s look at this term that Matthew decides to toss in here: dikaios. This is Greek for the Hebrew saddiq. Such a title is not awarded lightly in the Scriptures. This is a profound and full sense of righteousness, such as is attributed to Noah and Abraham. This is the kind of “justice” out of which radical foundations can be made. Here is Joseph the Righteous.
And Matthew has introduced this term to explain to us (while also confusing us further) the reason why Joseph decided to be kind and merciful to his adulterous wife? Assuming that there’s some wiggle room in the Law for this kind of arrangement (and we all assume this, of course), it would seem that a decent man could take this road without much heroic virtue. It hardly requires the righteousness of Noah or Abraham to walk away from an unfaithful spouse, without obligations and with a spotless reputation. The betrothed woman is allowed to live. We assume (again) that the “quiet” will succeed in smoothing over the situation for everybody, whereas in fact it refers only to refraining from filing a public charge. In such circumstances, the woman is still socially disgraced and even cast out of home and family, shamed for the rest of her life. It’s not like she can go abroad for a year, have the baby, and then come back with nobody knowing anything about it. This is not the Hamptons. This is a Palestinian village. In 4 b.c. Everybody knows everything. As for Joseph? Not his problem anymore.
But, Matthew tells us, Joseph is not the average man who wants to cut his losses and get out of town. He is saddiq. He is just. He is righteous. The angel in the dream does not rebuke him nor cause some great moral conversion. Joseph is already the quintessential steadfast man. Still, given what we assume to be his understanding, he’s not doing anything “wrong.” (Or is he being shifty with the Law? Isn’t there a better way? Oh gosh what a mixup!)
What’s wrong with this picture?
I’m not going to spoil it for you, so go read it all. You’ll be glad you did.
Thank God for the righteous man betrothed to the Virgin, and for his role in raising the Savior of the World. St. Joseph, pray for us!
Kevin O’Brien, “Joseph and the Angel.”
The Sacred Page, “Was Joseph Really Suspicious of Mary? A Look at the Gospel for Christmas Eve.”