Joseph the Just

Joseph the Just is but one of the many titles given to the husband of Mary, earthly father to Jesus. As a just Jewish man, he lived an upright life guided by the Torah. As a just man, he respected the custom of his time, foregoing any marital relations until the time of spousal betrothal was complete. When he discovered that Mary was pregnant prior to this, his fidelity to the Law of Moses no doubt left him in a spiritual, emotional, and legal quandary. Without a doubt, he knew he was not the father of the baby growing in the womb of his promised bride.

As a just man with faithful adherence to the Torah, Joseph was bound by the Levitical Law regarding Mary: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (LEV 20:10). Given that he had no marital relations with Mary and that she was now pregnant, the Law of Moses would have weighed heavily upon his heart. Joseph knew the child was not his. What must a just man do?

Joseph was faced with a conundrum: if he followed the letter of the law and submitted Mary to the prescribed judgement, she would be stoned to death and the child not yet born would also perish. Yet, if he stayed silent and Mary began “to show” that she was with child, observant neighbors might naturally conclude that the couple had disobeyed God’s purity laws, having come together as man and woman when they were not yet ceremonial husband and wife. As Mary’s pregnancy became visible to the world, Joseph could have been implicated for a trespass he had not committed: conjugal relations before the covenantal marriage was officially sealed. We can imagine that he must have turned to prayer to assuage the anxiety and anguish that welled up within.

A decision was needed: should Joseph turn Mary over to the Jewish authorities, who would likely impose the punishment of the Levitical law? With guidance of the Holy Spirit, Joseph exercised the virtue of prudence, or right-judgment. If Joseph had made a rash decision to enforce the letter of the law, Mary would have been stoned to death and the embryonic Jesus would have perished. The contents of her womb, that would grow and develop to become the savior of the world, would have been destroyed. But Joseph the Just, born in the line of David, used the same gifts bestowed upon his forefather David: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who made heaven and earth! He has given King David a wise son, endowed with intelligence and discernment, who will build a temple for the LORD and a palace for himself” (2 Chronicles 2:12). Joseph was truly a son of David.

Joseph trusted Mary and quietly wed her and thereby committed himself to the protection of her and her womb, the new Holy of Holies bearing the New Ark of the New Covenant, a temple for the Lord. Young Joseph also committed to a life of chastity. Like any just son of David, Joseph knew the Ark of the Covenant must not be touched, lest he suffer the same consequences as Uzzah, David’s servant who was struck dead by touching the Ark while trying to steady the cart bearing it (2 Sam 6:6). Joseph would not touch Mary in the spousal way, but their hearts would be intertwined in their mission. The Holy Family settled in Nazareth, where the King of Kings grew up in a humble home under the watchful eye of Joseph the Just.

While Joseph was well aware of the Levitical laws, he loved Mary and trusted in her goodness. He also trusted the Lord and thereby became a hinge between the old and new covenants: the covenant of the law and the covenant of love. Rather than exerting his own sense of justice as prescribed by the law, Joseph was patient and waited for the Lord to reveal his plan. Rather than falling into indignation, Joseph was slow to anger, abounding in mercy. Instead of rushing to judgment, Joseph was long-suffering. He showed patience in spite of his problems, even though they were not of his own making. He was slow to judge Mary. Rather than turning her over to the Jewish authorities, he resolved to send her away quietly, avoiding any public humiliation. Rather than taking the law into his own hands, Joseph followed the law of love.

With the help of Ignatian imagination, we can plunge ourselves into the scripture scene and look to Joseph for guidance in our own difficult situations. Joseph was confronted with the apparent sexual sin of Mary, yet he was slow to anger, full of kindness. Patience ruled over rash hostility. Joseph could have condemned Mary, but he did not. Of course, Mary was without sin, but Joseph did not know this at first and he acted out of love instead of retribution. In our own painful dilemmas, we can ask ourselves, “What would St. Joseph do?”

Joseph, what would you do if your daughter had an abortion?

Joseph, what would you do if your son moved in with his girlfriend?

Joseph, what would you do if your daughter was gay?

Imagine Joseph’s response:

The law of Leviticus told me that Mary should be put to death. That is what my head said when I found her to be with child, knowing that the child did not belong to me. The same law of Leviticus says, “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads (LEV 20:13).” This is Old Covenant law, but I stood between the two covenants. The New Covenant brings a change in the law through Jesus. Mary and I are hinges between the unity of the two covenants. We are children of Israel, and parents of Israel’s anointed One, the Messiah and savior for all people of every nation.

If I had followed the law of Leviticus, the savior of your gay daughter would have perished. Your Savior would have been killed, my savior would have been killed and Mary’s Savior would have been killed. Instead of judging, pray to be long suffering in your dilemmas. Do not rush to execute judgment on anyone. One never knows God’s complete plan. Jesus is the only rightful judge of you and any of the perceived sinful children you may have. He is truly just, and merciful. While I, his earthly father, am titled just, Jesus is Justice itself. Jesus is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast mercy. Remember how he treated the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11). Righteous men promptly brought her forward for judgement. Jesus knew their duplicitous hearts, so he challenged them, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” No one acted; each turned and left the scene, the oldest and wisest exiting first. “Is there no one to condemn you?” “No one sir,” she replied. “Then neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” He, the only just judge, could have condemned her but he had come to seek and save the lost and not to condemn them. Oh, how he loves those who are entangled and unable to free themselves.

Dear parents, be long-suffering with your children. Do not condemn them, instead, love them. Love your gay children, have hope for healing in your daughter wounded by abortion, pray for your child who is transgender and be patient with any child living apart from the Savior they desperately need. Thank their guardian angels frequently for their protection. For it is my son Jesus whose greatest hope is to save your son or daughter one day. The Holy Spirit, by whom my son Jesus was conceived, without any help from me, will be the same Holy Spirit who convicts your child one day that they do need a savior. The Holy Spirit is all powerful and God already has a plan in mind. You must be long suffering, wait patiently and pray for wise prudential judgment. Be just and righteous yourself and never self-righteous. And just as the angel Gabriel told my beloved wife Mary, never forget that “with God, nothing will be impossible (Luke 1:37).” Please remember that you are not the final judge; Jesus is. I did not judge pregnant Mary, but it took an act of God for me not to do so. Four times God sent heavenly messengers to help me know what to do. Trust that God will help you too and pray for all the virtues. You will need them, I needed them and I lived with sinless people. You will also need supernatural grace, so frequent the sacraments often where grace is always available. The pilgrimage home to the true promised land of heaven is long and winding. Each child of God arrives at their destiny in their own freedom and God’s timing.

Had I turned Mary over to be stoned to death, I would have been responsible for killing the God-man, and Savior of the world. I shudder to even think of it. Be prudent in your judgements and always remember, things aren’t always as they seem. Err on the side of love and above all, “hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).”

Sharon Doran About Sharon Doran

Sharon Doran is the Teaching Director of Seeking Truth Catholic Bible Study She holds a MA in Educational Psychology from Eastern Michigan University and MA in Pastoral Theology/Sacred Scripture from the Augustine Institute. Sharon is certified in spiritual direction and retreat leadership from Creighton University. She is co-author of the scripture commentary The Rise and Fall of Ancient Israel.


  1. This is a beautiful reflection and well worth reading and sharing. But we must remember that in order to receive mercy we have first to realize we’ve sinned, and we must repent. Jesus says to the woman taken in adultery: Go forth and “sin no more.” Those three last words are just as important as his earlier words that He would not condemn her. The problem with our generations is that we want mercy while continuing to sin…and that’s not how it works. Jesus forgives seventy times seven…but only if we ask for forgiveness and that requires understanding that we’ve done something wrong, something that needs rectifying, a rectification we realize we cannot bring to fruition without God’s intervention—His saving grace. So we ask for grace, perhaps without fully understanding we have to cooperate with it in order to change and stop the sinful actions. It’s a long work, repentance. But we need to talk about it as least as much as mercy. They are the two sides of the coin of redemption.

  2. Avatar Paul Turnley says:

    Thank you!!! excellent, especially Joseph’s “thoughts”

  3. Sharon, this is so beautiful. Thank you for writing it.

    In response to Laura G, I say, “Yes, and…”

    It is true that God will not save us without our permission. All need to repent, to turn (shuv, Hb). Through our intercessory prayer it is God who turns the hearts. Through our prayers it is He who turns hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (cf Ez 36:26). St. Paul said in Romans 5:8: “but God shows his love for us in that *while we were still sinners*, Christ died for us” (Emphasis mine). He didn’t wait for us to stop sinning to give His life for us. And, of course, as Christ was dying for us He said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). In His dying breath He forgave without their repentance.

    We would do well to open our arms to sinners as our Savior did. It is through those open arms (not the law) that all of us are drawn to repentance.

    Joseph the Just taught his Son well.

  4. Avatar John D Keyser says:

    Thank you Sharon,
    Those are beautiful powerful thoughts.