March 19th is the day that Catholics (myself included) honor St. Joseph, the man betrothed to the Virgin Mary and the foster father of Jesus Christ. We may not know a great deal about Joseph, but we are told this humble carpenter lived to a ripe old age, and that he was still alive when Jesus went and taught in the Temple as a boy. Joseph today is recognized as a patron saint to fathers, families, expectant mothers, travelers and immigrants, craftsmen, and workers in general. But there's something else special about St. Joseph that leads us to reflection.
Joseph is venerated as a "just man," a title that speaks volumes. He earned such distinction for a very good reason, showing the spirit of justice rather than a slavish adherence to the letter of the law. When Joseph was betrothed to Mary, the young woman had what seemed a dreadful secret: she was pregnant. According to the laws and customs of the time, the graying carpenter had every right to abandon her then and there, or to do much worse. Joseph could have exacted a brutal punishment on Mary, and he would have been "right" by contemporary legal standards, just as the Pharisees considered themselves righteous upholders of the law in their condemnation of the adulteress. Yet Joseph resisted this temptation to condemn Mary, having been visited by a no less than an angel:
But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.
And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1: 20-21)
In such a difficult and potentially humiliating situation (Think of the shame that Joseph would endure had gossip over Mary's pregnancy spread!), Joseph had to conquer his own ego and passions, trusting in God above all else. Joseph's mercy to the innocent Mary was indeed a gift of the Holy Spirit. In the same way, Our Lord's instruction to the adulteress condemned by the Pharisees - "Go and sin no more" - was an example of true justice founded upon mercy.
Every day we should work for justice - in my practice that means protecting clients in estate, trust and probate litigation and ensuring that bad actors answer for violations like elder abuse. Yet to understand the fullness of justice, we must recognize that judging - and condemning - another's heart is infinitely beyond our paygrade. As St. Joseph saw, there's a court higher than any civil authority we all must answer to, so let us be grateful for his example.