Perspective. The Gospel tells us that Joseph “was a righteous man.” Good thing too. Imagine if he wasn’t. Betrothed to Mary, and finding her already with child, it was entirely within his rights to expose her to shame. He might even have demanded her execution. No Christmas story there. It would have been the end of Christianity. It would have been the condemnation of our salvation.
But notice, stoning Mary was a legal option for Joseph. No one would have questioned his righteousness had he elected it. It would have been in accord with ancient law and custom. Some may even have praised him for upholding traditional values. Many may have remarked on the severity, but none would have doubted the legality.
When Matthew writes that Joseph was a righteous man, he has in mind a righteousness that “surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Mt 5:20). Joseph does not have a righteousness “which is of the law” but the “righteousness which is from God by faith” (Phil 3:9). Joseph certainly knows the law. He abides by it. But he has also come to know the Author of the law. By faith, Joseph has conformed his heart, not to the strict letter, but to the mind of the Lawgiver.
We see Joseph’s faith in action. He believes and accepts the message of the angel that “it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” He follows the instruction to “take Mary your wife into your home.” Doing this, he is skating the very edge of the law, if not breaking it outright (see Dt 24:1). However, acting in faith, he conforms to the will of God, and secures a righteousness surpassing the law. Acting in faith he is like Abraham, the father of nations, whose faith was credited to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6, Rom 4:9). Like Abraham, we owe our salvation to the righteousness of Joseph. He has become the stepfather of the nations.
God prefers to act through his creation. Think of the sacraments. We ourselves are meant to serve as channels of grace. Sin, selfishness, and self-righteousness all frustrate that grace. A self-righteous Joseph would have killed Christmas. A selfish or proud Joseph would have condemned our redemption. Instead, by his righteousness, he became a key instrument in the designs of God. His righteousness became a blessing to the nations.
We do not have a righteousness of our own, “but that which comes through faith in Christ” (Rom 3:9). Cultivating that faith we become more ready instruments of grace. Cultivating righteousness, we become a blessing to the nations.