Saint Joseph the Just

In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI discusses the role and character of Saint Joseph, whose feast day it is today. What he writes is almost a miniature homily on Matthew 1:19, which says that Joseph, after hearing of Mary’s becoming pregnant, ‘being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly’. Pope Benedict focuses on this description of Saint Joseph as a ‘just man’ and considers what this reveals to us about his character, and therefore what we can learn from him:

The designation of Joseph as a just man (zaddik) extends far beyond the decision he takes at this moment: it gives an overall picture of Saint Joseph and at the same time it aligns him with the great figures of the Old Covenant – beginning with Abraham, the just. If we may say that the form of piety found in the New Testament can be summed up in the expression “a believer,” then the Old Testament idea of a whole life lived according to sacred Scripture is summed up in the idea of “a just man.”

Psalm 1 presents the classic image of the “just” man. We might well think of it as a portrait of the spiritual figure of Saint Joseph. A just man, it tell us, is one who maintains living contact with the word of God, who “delights in the law of the Lord” (v.2). He is like a tree, planted beside the flowing waters, constantly bringing forth fruit. The flowing waters, from which he draws nourishment, naturally refer to the living word of God, into which he sinks the roots of his being. God’s will is not a law imposed on him from without, it is “joy.” For him the law is simply Gospel, good news, because he reads it with a personal, loving openness to God and in this way learns to understand and live it from deep within.

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012), pp.39-40, Bloomsbury.

            Here Pope Benedict draws out the implications of Matthews’s description of Joseph, linking it to the wider tradition from which the Evangelist is writing out of – that of the Hebraic ideal of faithfulness to and trust in what God has revealed, and of finding one’s peace by living in accordance with His will.

From this perspective, Saint Joseph functions as the ideal representative of Jewish piety, rooted in a love of God and obedience to His ways, and also as a key transitional figure, whose love of the heart of the Law prefigures the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus emphasises that it is this very essence that has been neglected, in favour of a purely external and legalistic adherence. This aspect of Joseph’s character is also highlighted by Pope Benedict:

After the discovery that Joseph made, his task was to interpret and apply the law correctly. He does so with love: he does not want to give Mary up to public shame. He wishes her well, even in the hour of his great disappointment. He does not embody the form of externalised legalism that Jesus denounces in Mt 23 and that Paul opposes so strenuously. He lives the law as Gospel. He seeks the path that brings the law and love into a unity. And so he is inwardly prepared for the new, unexpected and humanly speaking incredible news that comes to him from God.

ibid, pp.40-41.

            It is Joseph’s deep intimacy with the heart of the Law, his faithfulness to and love of God, which enables him to recognise and receive the new and startling things that are happening to him as being of divine initiative. This is not to argue for a position of naivety, but rather an inward disposition of receptivity that comes from having built a lasting relationship with God through His word. By a life lived in obedience to this word, letting it shape his heart and mind so that the divine will is what he knows and loves, Joseph is able to discern correctly what is of the Lord and what is not. It is this quality that allows him to receive with such clarity the angelic message sent to him via his dreams, and to know the difference between this and any other dream.

In fact, early on this facet of Joseph’s character is brought to our attention by Matthew, when at 1:20 he says that Joseph ‘inwardly considered’ (enthymethentos) what was the correct way to respond to the new situation created by Mary’s pregnancy (ibid, p.41). It is only subsequent to this consideration that he receives the message of the angel and is told not to be afraid – it is only then, after discerning what all this might mean in the light of the will of God he has known through prayer and meditation on the scriptures, that the angel can communicate the awesome truth to him. Such is the way of God – he will not force us to accept anything, but will only work with us and make Himself known so far as we allow Him space within ourselves in which to move.

From the light shed by Pope Benedict’s study then, we can see that Saint Joseph was indeed a just man, and that his being just is not simply a formal thing – the carrying out of certain tasks and meeting of obligations – but an inward disposition formed by an obedience borne out of love, and constantly renewed by meeting God in His word. We can also see that it is only by allowing ourselves, like Joseph, to be similarly shaped in our innermost parts, that we can be receptive to the new directions God may wish to lead us in. To be able to discern God’s will in our lives requires a prior commitment to getting to know God and to loving Him so that His will may become both our desire and our compass on the way through life.

It is part of the great mystery of the Incarnation that, as we affirm Jesus Christ to be true God and true man, we must also reckon with the fact that He who eternally is, was and ever shall be, also ‘increased in wisdom and in stature’ (Luke 2:52). Whilst it is an awesome task to even begin to speculate as to how our Lord grew in his understanding of the world and development of character, what I am certain of is that Saint Joseph played a great part in that development, and it was part of God’s plan that His only-begotten Son should have a just man to guide Him through those early stages in life – someone to show Him what it is to be a good man, and how to discern the heart of the Law. Truly this is the Lord’s doing, and ‘it is marvellous in our eyes’ (Psalm 118:23). Saint Joseph, pray for us!

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