A Righteous Man

           There’s hardly a part of the Christmas story that I don’t like.  Angels and shepherds, magi and stables, words of wisdom and stories of wonder – it all plays out in this powerful cosmic story that we get to hear again and again every year.

Even the stories that lead up to the Christmas story fill me with joy and amazement.  I’m always especially drawn to the story from Luke 1 about how Mary finds out she’s pregnant with Jesus. 

Matthew 1:18-25

There’s hardly a part of the Christmas story that I don’t like.  Angels and shepherds, magi and stables, words of wisdom and stories of wonder – it all plays out in this powerful cosmic story that we get to hear again and again every year.

Even the stories that lead up to the Christmas story fill me with joy and amazement.  I’m always especially drawn to the story from Luke 1 about how Mary finds out she’s pregnant with Jesus.  The angel Gabriel comes to her and tells her that she is pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit.  She carries this news with her as she visits her family.  Her relative Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, who leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary arrives.  Mary then sings the Magnificat, the powerful song about God’s favor towards the lowly.  We know it here because we sing it every Lent during Holden Evening Prayer: “My soul proclaims your greatness, O God, and my spirit rejoices in you”.  It’s a powerful and humble image in both music and art throughout history.

But I’m getting carried away, because that’s not the story we hear today.  Matthew doesn’t tell us about the announcement of Mary’s pregnancy from Mary’s perspective; Matthew tells us the story from Joseph’s perspective.  The poetry and drama of Mary’s perspective sticks with me, but the story from Joseph’s perspective feels much more passive: “When [Jesus’] mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  Such a quiet observation for such a life-changing truth.

This verse clouds the impossible reality Joseph faces.  According to Deuteronomy 22, a betrothed virgin like Mary – a young woman promised in marriage to a particular man – if she is found to have been with another man, both that other man and the woman are to be dragged out of the city limits and killed.  When Joseph finds that Mary, the young woman promised to him in marriage, is pregnant, that’s a pretty clear sign that she has not obeyed the law.  This violent command is echoed other places in the law as well.  Joseph is a faithful man who knows what the law of God requires.  He is to call attention to Mary’s sin and have her killed in public.

This is the “public disgrace” that Matthew mentions.  It’s a very gentle way to call attention to the severity of the law to which Joseph was entitled.  We know the truth of the story: that Mary is the mother of God’s own son.  However, in the eyes of the law, this is a technicality.  There is only one legal and just response.

But Matthew tells us that Joseph is “a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace” who therefore “planned to dismiss her quietly”.  Please note that quietly breaking his engagement to Mary and sending her on her way is not what the law demands.  There’s no provision for that.  He’s making up his own rules here.  And what is he basing them on?  He is doing this because he is, as Matthew explains, “a righteous man”.

He is a righteous man, not because he knows the law and follows it and demands the same of others.  He is a righteous man because he lives his life out of a faithfulness to God’s command, a commitment to divine mercy, and a sense of justice that takes God’s love and grace into account.  In this is righteousness: not slavish devotion to the law, but a slavish devotion to love and service to God and neighbor.  Love fulfills the law.

It is this same righteous man who is able to hear and believe the unbelievable words from the angel in his dream: “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”.  He trusts this strange and mysterious promise and takes an even greater risk: marrying a woman who is already pregnant.  For Joseph, at this time in the history of God’s people, this burden would have been almost too great to bear.  A faithful and devout man like him would have faced unknowable mockery and possibly even outright hostility, not to mention the careful way he would have to protect his wife.  While Joseph knew the truth, how could he explain it to those who insisted upon the letter of the law?

Joseph is a righteous man who is willing to risk greatly and trust deeply.  And this is not because he lives his life in some kind of in-or-out, right-or-wrong sensibility.  It’s because righteousness means faithfulness to God’s dynamic call in the world.  The word righteousness will get used a lot in the gospel of Matthew – pay attention to it, because righteousness is one of the great themes of this particular gospel.  It’s used 18 times in Matthew’s gospel, because in it, Jesus constantly defines and embodies what righteousness really is.

Sometimes righteousness means going over and above what the law demands, exacting a justice that cannot be paid by any human being.  Sometimes righteousness means ignoring the law for the sake of the neighbor in need.  Sometimes righteousness means a complete reversal of conventional expectations.  But always, always, righteousness means attention to God’s specific call in a particular context, with an eye to how the lowly may be lifted up and the captive may be set free.

This is what makes Joseph a righteous man.  He knows the choice available to him and he doesn’t take it.  Better yet, he hears God’s call when it comes and is therefore able to take the still more difficult path.  His life and relationship with Mary opposed the law and yet was an embodiment of God’s good work in the world.  In his compassion, willingness to risk, and attentiveness to the new thing God does, we see that Joseph is indeed righteous.

Righteousness is not superiority, whether moral or legal.  Righteousness is not a life denied to some but afforded to others.  Righteousness is not power.  Righteousness is a devotion to God’s work in the world.  Righteousness is a quietness of heart, a posture of humility, a willingness to be wrong.  Righteousness is daily devotion to the hard work of listening for what God is asking of you now, today, here, this moment, even when it is a new thing that leaves you vulnerable and exposed.  Righteousness is risk and trust and love.

We move into Christmas, swept away by and excitement and exhaustion and expectation.  Perhaps it’s a time of great joy for you; maybe your heart is heavy with the weight of what should be or cannot be.  No matter where your heart and head are at, it is easy to lose sight of this reminder: God calls us to righteousness.  In the coming of God’s son, Jesus, the adopted son of Joseph, we learn the shape of righteousness.  It is the work of righteousness to which Jesus was called.  It is that same work to which God calls us.  May Christmas teach you to listen, to trust, to risk, and to move forward daily in attentive faithfulness to God’s ever-changing call.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

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