Why Edmund is Basically Joseph the Father of Jesus

I was reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe recently when I realized something for the first time: Edmund has a really strange name.

No, I don’t mean “Edmund” itself, although it’s not the catchiest moniker ever. I mean the title that he gets at the coronation at the end of the book.

His siblings’ make sense: Peter the Magnificent. (I mean, a little overboard, but, hey, he’s a sixteen-year-old who’s suddenly ruling a whole country. He can use all the PR help he can get.) Susan the Stick-in-the-Mud—I mean, Susan the Gentle. Lucy the Valiant.

And Edmund…the Just.

If that title doesn’t sound strange to you, think about this: Aslan trading himself for a traitor was a great and beautiful act of…mercy. Not justice. In fact, most of us would say that it was an act of mercy instead of an act of justice.

I think this is Edmund's fourth blog post. Because he's my favorite.

I think this is Edmund’s fourth blog post. Because he’s my favorite.

So, okay, you might say, maybe even though Edmund benefited from an act of mercy, his personality was more geared toward justice. Nope, sorry. Let’s jump forward in time to The Horse and His Boy, where the Penvensie rulers are deciding what to do with a criminal.

“Your Majesty would have a perfect right to strike off his head,” said Peridan.

That, my friends, is what we normally think of when we think of justice. The “perfect right” to follow the law and punish the guilty. And how does Edmund the Just respond?

“It is very true,” said Edmund. “But even a traitor may mend. I have known one that did.” And he looked very thoughtful.

How do we understand this? Did Lewis just pick a random noble-sounding adjective for Edmund without considering the fact that his entire character arc was based on mercy, not justice?

There it is again. I said, “mercy, not justice.” I don’t know about you, but I always thought of justice and mercy as being opposed to each other. A kind of this vs. that standoff.

Guilty vs. not guilty. Inspector Javert vs. Jean Valjean. “A pound of flesh” vs. “the quality of mercy is not strained/It droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven.” (Shakespeare reference—if you haven’t read Merchant of Venice, you should.)

In these scenarios, justice is the bad guy, and mercy graciously steps in to hold back judgment.

Except I wonder if we’ve gotten it wrong. What if Inspector Javert isn’t the person we should think of as the embodiment of true justice? What if, instead, it’s Joseph, the father of Jesus?

Because, according to Matthew 1:19, he is. “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put [Mary] to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”

Joseph is described as “just” or “righteous,” having a complete commitment to doing what is right…and then that description is linked to an action that we would probably classify as merciful instead of just.

The commentaries I looked at all had a field day with this. Some of them insisted on the traditional conception of “just,” meaning that Joseph felt compelled to follow the Law, and his quiet divorce solution was an example of an opposing emotion: mercy and love. Others said that, basically, we could replace the word “just” with “merciful.” Others were like, “What on earth? Does language even mean anything at that point?” And the first guys said, “Did you even read 1 John 1:9? The exact same thing is going on there.” To which their opponents responded, “Of course we’ve read 1 John 1:9! We’re scholars, aren’t we?”

(Am I the only one who pictures Bible scholars as having animated arguments with each other whenever their texts disagree? I’d recommend giving it a try—it makes things much more interesting. Especially when they start making theological “your mom” jokes.)

Here’s something to think about:

Mercy is the cross.

Justice is the cross.

Jesus’ death for our sins was not one or the other—it fulfilled the requirements of both. There, at least, is one place where justice and mercy were not in opposition.*

You two are a false dichotomy. Take that, all the literary analysis of Les Mis ever written!

You two are a false dichotomy. Take that, all the literary analysis of Les Mis ever written!

So how did we come to the point where we think of justice and mercy as contradictory virtues? I don’t know. But I will tentatively put this forward: what if sin shattered our idea of God’s love into two shards, justice and mercy? What if we, being finite humans, have a limited capacity to be merciful or just, much less both at the same time…so we separate them? What if God’s love means both hatred for sin and mercy toward sinners?

Okay, that was very abstract. All of the practical people probably checked out after paragraph five. But in case any of you are still here, this is why I think this matters: we run into problems when we make justice and mercy into opposing forces. It makes us split other aspects of Christian life into epic standoffs. Like speaking the truth vs. speaking in love. Or preaching the gospel vs. being passionate about social justice. When, really, we are supposed to do both. At the same time. They are not in conflict, the same way that justice and mercy aren’t in conflict.

They weren’t for Edmund or Joseph. And I don’t think they are for God, either.

(Unrelated Note: When I sat down to write this, I was like, “Hooray! I’m going to write a Christmas post!” And, somehow, even though I referenced both the nativity story and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which are two of the most Christmas-sy stories ever, this is not, in fact, a Christmas post. Sorry about that.)

*Stuffy Theological Footnote For the Dedicated Reader: Basically, there’s one major question here: is justice punitive or restorative? Which is a fancy academic way of saying: is the main point of justice to punish a wrong or to restore a relationship?

Related: I’ve heard several variations on the statement, “Why do people say that hell isn’t just? If God were really just, we’d all be condemned to hell.” That never quite added up for me, logically, because there were two other things that I was very, extremely sure about and that I couldn’t reconcile with the first statement: God is just. And we are not all condemned to hell. Let me know if you figure this one out; I haven’t quite yet.

3 comments

  1. You’re on the right track, and I think that you’re exactly right about how you define sin as drawing a false dichotomy between justice and mercy.

    But…

    I think that the modern conception of justice is not the one that should properly be used when viewing Edmund the Just or Joseph of Nazareth. You’re drawing on a very Enlightened perspective of justice in that it is the pursuance of the Law, but that isn’t the classical understanding of the word, and Lewis was nothing if not a classicist. I don’t think I need to make a case for the Bible using pre-Enlightenment definitions…

    So then we’re left with a definition of justice which, like mercy, love, or righteousness, is self-defining. After all, if “just” action cannot be defined in relation to the law, how can it be defined? Very simply – you’ll know it when you see it. Sometimes it is exact adherence to the law. Sometimes it flouts the law. Sometimes it is gentle, sometimes it is harsh. It varies, depending on the administrator of justice and the recipient. That’s the problem with real virtue – it can only be understood in context of itself, and to try and define it didactically is to reduce it.

    1. I actually think I agree with you completely. My previous understanding of justice, and one that I think our culture usually means when using it, is loaded with the Enlightenment concept of Law (i.e., Javert). But you’re right in that Lewis and especially the authors of the Bible had something different in mind than our modern conception of justice. I love how you framed it and its nuances–thanks!

    2. I’ve just had the time to go over your interesting comment and to digest it. I agree, and thanks for putting it so well.

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