Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Joseph the Just

I'm really enjoying Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey. Here's one of the little pieces in it that really struck me.

I wrote a while ago about the message of the book of Ruth being that the law should be interpreted generously and inclusively, and that being about David's ancestors this story provided a model for the governing of Israel. Bailey draws attention to a similar story about David's descendent Joseph in Matthew 1:18-19.

His (Jesus') mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because her husband was a righteous (or "just") man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

This was not just tact. The Old Testament punishment for a woman caught in adultery was stoning to death, and John 8:1-11 shows this was still practiced in the first century. Joseph, knowing that he's not the father of the child, decides to save Mary's life. Subsequently the angel's intervention convinces him to go ahead with the marriage, but Bailey suggests that Mary would not have been out of danger even then. Part of Joseph's motivation in taking Mary to Bethlehem with him despite her advanced preganancy may have been to protect her from her angry relatives at home.

The bit of this story that jars is the use of the word "just" or "righteous" to describe Joseph's action. Why not "kind" or "merciful"? Surely the "just" thing to do is to apply the law without fear of favour, equally to all people? To explain this, Bailey quotes Isaiah 42:3

A bruised reed he will not break
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.

Here, in Isaiah's vision of the suffering servant who will save Israel, is a version of justice which is not about retribution or equal application of the law, but about the protection of the weak. Joseph, the descendent of David and of Ruth and Boaz, lives by this kind of justice. He is prepared to lower his own dignity in order to protect a defenceless young woman, even before he understands the significance of her pregnancy. He would be within his rights, and upheld by his community, if he insisted on her stoning. Instead he steps out against his community and humiliates himself in order to carry out God's version of justice.

Like Boaz, Joseph is a precursor and shows in a small way the kind of justice God wants in the wider world, writ large by his son Jesus. God is not a law enforcer. His desire is not to hand out justice in an even-handed, impartial way. Instead, God's justice is about protection, mercy and love. We do not flee to the protection of the Son from the hard hand of the Father, because the Son reveals the Father's true justice, as shown here by Joseph right at the start of the story.

6 comments:

Andrew said...

Well said! It has been very liberating, and encouraging, to learn in the past few years that God's version of justice many not be the "balancing of scales" or "pound of flesh" definition that I once thought it was.

Allan Smith said...

Scenario One:

Sally: Daddy! Daddy! Johnny ripped the head off my doll!

Father: Well, I'm a chap who believes in justice. Rip the wheels off his car! Couldn't be fairer than that. Whatever it takes to keep the peace.

Scenario Two:

Sally: Daddy! Daddy! Johnny ripped the head off my doll!

Father: You come here, Johnny! Look what you've done. You've made your sister cry. You go and get that doll and help me fix it. Then you'll give Sally a big hug and a kiss, and say you're sorry. Either that, or the wooden spoon.

Luke said...

Alternative Scene:

Johnny: If I was big enough I'd whack you with the wooden spoon!

Jon, I wasn't sure what your saying here: The bit of this story that jars is the use of the word "just" or "righteous" to describe Joseph's action. Why not "kind" or "merciful"? Surely the "just" thing to do is to apply the law without fear of favour, equally to all people? Can you spell it out differently because
I don't see why does God's justice excludes being "kind" and "merciful."

Good thoughts Jon, but I'm wary of the "law-keeper" caricature. We think immediately of corrupt southern policeman. But I wonder if that's because we've seen those who are meant to keep and impose the law abusing it.

Jon said...

Thanks for all your comments. Luke, I was thinking that justice is about the fair and equal application of the law. If you keep the law, it should protect you, if you break it you should be punished in accordance with it. In contrast, Joseph protects Mary from the consequences of the law - he shows her mercy. Yet he is not referred to as "merciful" but as "just". God's mercy and justice are not opposites, different aspects of his nature, they are the same thing.

There's not space here to go into the whole thing, but I believe the most common mistake in Christian ethics is to see Christian morality as about keeping various laws and sin as about breaking them. Yet Jesus says "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees you can't enter the kindgom of heaven". He doesn't mean your law should be even stricter (how could it be?), he means that you need to learn the merciful, loving righteousness of God.

Allan Smith said...

Johnny: If I was big enough I'd whack you with the wooden spoon!

Hi Luke,

Yes, Johnny can resist his father for a time, but can he resist the grace of God forever? "All whom the Father gives me will come to me," says Jesus. And all things in Heaven and Earth (and under the Earth) have been given to Christ.

But let's not get too fat off topic. Which father was just? The one who tried to restore harmony using paybacks, or the one who wouldn't rest until the damage was repaired and the antagonists reconciled? Which father was more like God?

Luke said...

'True justice' is the way God operates, and he seems to operate on a system that is both uniform and stacked full of exceptions. So at Yom Kippur (Lev 16), it would seem fairer for the people rather than one goat to receive the sins of the people. I reject this Marcion (early church heretic who said we should do away with the Old Testament) notion that we have to choose between the strict God who "fairly" enforces his law and the super-nice God. Again Chesterton's portrait at the end of A Man Called Thursday rings true, the God we fear loves us. Furthermore there isn't a sense of cosmic law God is beholden to, he is that cosmic law, it's his law to declare adultery wrong and to declare Joseph righteous. Now to head off an objection at the pass, the Islamic notion of God is only half true and that's one of the great sadnesses of Islam, we should fear God full-stop. Again, the Christian conception is the God we fear, loves us, immanence and transcendence married.