In the beginning

Column: St. Joseph: Perfect blend of justice and mercy

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Did you know that some religious goods stores sell statues of St. Joseph made specifically to be buried in the ground of property that is for sale?

There is a superstition that maintains that doing so will enlist the help of St. Joseph in selling the property. This practice presents St. Joseph as a kind of supernatural real estate agent.

I only heard about this custom after I had been ordained a priest. Most likely it developed as a way to fill in the gaps in our knowledge about St. Joseph. That is why many legends grow up around saints. After all, we do not know much about St. Joseph, only the little that the Gospels tell us.

Significantly, Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 1:18-24, proclaims Joseph a righteous man. The word “righteous” can also be translated “just.”

According to the Gospel, this quality of Joseph’s character explains why he decides not to expose Mary to shame when he learns of her pregnancy, but instead to divorce her.

At first glance, calling Joseph “righteous/just” may look like a minor detail, merely a compliment describing Joseph. However, in Matthew’s Gospel, it takes on major significance.

The word occurs six times in Matthew’s Gospel, compared to once in Mark’s Gospel. Matthew’s Gospel takes great interest in the question of who is just. And in answer to that question, Matthew’s Gospel presents Joseph as an example of the just man.

By presenting Joseph as the just man par excellence, Matthew’s Gospel also clarifies its own understanding of justice. Joseph’s actions illustrate the concept of justice for us.

Specifically, Joseph shows us a justice which does not strictly adhere to the letter of the law, but rather takes into account the human side of a situation. The law of Moses provided that a woman who is not a virgin when she is married should be put to death: “They shall bring the girl to the entrance of her father’s house and there the townsmen shall stone her to death, because she committed a crime against Israel by her unchasteness in her father’s house” (Dt 22:21).

Joseph does not choose this drastic course of action outlined by the law, but instead chooses mercy. And that choice for mercy defines what “justice” means in the Gospel of Matthew.

That may strike us as very strange. After all, according to our Western mindset, justice and mercy are opposed to each other. Justice follows the law, while mercy grants an exception to it.

On the other hand, the Hebrew tradition takes a broader approach to justice. It can include mercy. In fact, mercy and rigor appear as the chief attributes of God, the one who is all just.

St. Joseph, the just man, in his mercy anticipates the beatitude in Matthew’s Gospel: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Mt 5:7). Similarly, he anticipates the call of Matthew, when Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Mt 9:13).

St. Joseph personifies that blend of mercy and justice which characterizes the entire Gospel of Matthew.

Father Stubbs is the pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Lansing.

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Fr. Mike Stubbs

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