I’ve been a priest of this diocese for a long time and have served in several parishes. I taught in the diocesan lay ministry and diaconate training programs. I taught at two universities, at the graduate and undergraduate levels. I’ve traveled quite a bit, as well. All these experiences have afforded me the opportunity to meet quite a large number of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Every person I’ve ever met thought of herself or himself as a good person; not all of them, however, were correct in their estimation of themselves.
The few criminals I’ve encountered, for example, would not be considered good people by anyone but themselves. Most of the ones mistaken about the goodness of their natures, however, are not murderers, or adulterers, or apostates; they are simply self-deceived. This is an easy mistake to make.
Everyone is born into the world with an innate awareness of goodness, both temporal and eternal. I liken this awareness to other natural talents. Some people are born with musical talent, or mathematical talent, or athletic talent, or something similar. Those innate talents are real, but they need to be developed. Having a natural talent for the game of golf doesn’t make one a golfer; rather, golfers are people with innate talent who take lessons, practice regularly, and play the game. The same is true of all innate talents, including the ability to recognize goodness and to be a good person.
Everyone is born with the ability to recognize goodness and to be a good person. Good people are those who train and develop their innate talent for goodness. Evil people are those who mistake natural (undeveloped) talent for actual virtue.
Matthew’s Gospel introduces the story of Jesus’ birth by presenting St. Joseph as an example of what is required in order to be a good person. The Gospel describes Joseph as “a righteous man.” (Mt. 1:19) This statement means that he had learned the requirements of the Law of Moses and made a legitimate effort to fulfill those requirements. The Gospel also says that Joseph was compassionate. (Mt. 1:19) He was unwilling to expose Mary to shame because, following the Golden Rule, he treated her in the manner that he wanted to be treated.
Like everyone else, Joseph had a natural talent for being good and recognizing goodness. He became a good person by developing his natural talent through study of God’s Word, giving God faithful worship, and practicing virtue. The result of his effort to learn to be a good man is demonstrated when the Scriptures say he was righteous and compassionate.
The Gospel author focused on Joseph’s goodness in order to provide us with reliable instruction to follow so that we might become good people, as well. A good person, according to Matthew’s Gospel, is one who learns God’s Word, gives God faithful worship, and practices virtue as a daily habit. The author reiterates this lesson throughout the Gospel.
Advent is an opportune time for us to reflect on this lesson. The stories about Joseph provide us with detailed information about what is required of a truly good person.
In the Annunciation story in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph appears to be caught between conflicting obligations. On the one hand, he was a righteous follower of the Law of Moses; this required him to divorce Mary because she was carrying someone else’s child. On the other hand, he was extremely compassionate; he did not want to expose Mary to public shame. Until he learned in a dream that Mary’s child would be the Savior of God’s People, he was going to end his betrothal to her. (Mt. 1:19) When he learned that the child was God’s Son, Joseph had to make an accommodation to the practice of his faith; he had to raise the child as his own. This is what good people do on a routine basis: they find faithful, compassionate ways to satisfy the conflicting demands of virtue.
Why would the Gospel author portray Joseph as making an accommodation to his observance of the Law of Moses? Why would Advent invite us to focus on Joseph’s discernment process? Let me think. Why would that happen? Could it have anything to do with all the people we’ll encounter during the coming Christmas season? Could it have anything to do with the fact that we’ll spend a lot of time in the company of relatives and neighbors?
Sadly, not everyone learns adequately the lessons about how to be a good person. Some people seem to make an effort to be contentious, argumentative, annoying, or offensive. Often, people and events put us in a situation where we feel conflicted about how to do the right thing. St. Joseph is an excellent example of what it means to be a good person because St. Joseph is an excellent example of how to balance conflicting values. He was faithful, compassionate, and generous at all times – even in the most difficult circumstances.
A good person is one who clings faithfully to all she or he holds dear but remains open to God’s free and gracious power to save the whole world. A good person is one who learns to balance ideals with reality. Advent is an invitation for us to learn about goodness and put it into practice. At times, these are difficult, challenging lessons, but they are the only way to learn to be truly good. It’s very easy to confuse the natural talent for goodness with actual virtue; the result of such a mistake is to fall far short of one’s own estimations as well as God’s expectations. This coming Christmas season is an excellent time to learn and practice virtue, to learn how to balance conflicting values, to learn how to put into practice our natural talent for goodness so we can become the good people God intends us to be.