By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25
Perhaps you have heard the saying, “You are the only bible some people will ever read.” The meaning behind that saying, of course, is that when we live according to the Word of God, we reveal –we might even say embody – God’s Word for those who have not yet read the bible. Now, I don’t know how long that cliche has been around; but I imagine that no one is a better illustration of it than Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.
During this Advent season, we’ve examined a cast of biblical characters found in the gospel of Luke: the elderly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and the young virgin, Mary. Those biblical characters have exemplified what it means to live as people of hope, faith and grace.
But this morning, we find ourselves in the gospel of Matthew. This past Monday evening at Fusion, a couple of us were discussing the differences found in Luke and Matthew regarding Jesus’ birth. Matthew has no journey to Bethlehem, no manger with hay, no shepherds on a hillside or angels singing in the night. Yet, there is something Matthew has that Luke lacks – a strong, male lead. While Luke puts his focus on Mary, Matthew makes Joseph the recipient of the angelic visitation and announcement.
And the story of the angel’s appearance to Joseph introduces the key theme of Matthew’s gospel: the theme of righteousness. Our narrator’s introduction of Joseph presents a man who seeks to live faithfully in accordance with Torah, God’s Word to the Israelites consisting of the Old Testament laws God gave them during their sojourn in the wilderness. As Christians, when we read those laws, they may seem laborious and legalistic. But we need to realize that would not have been the experience of our religious ancestors. Those laws, generally speaking, existed for two purposes: (1) they revealed the Israelites as God’s distinctive, chosen people AND (2) they were instructions for how to live in right relationship with God and with others. Those Old Testament laws shaped the identity and the behavior of the Israelites and righteousness was the result of living according to those laws.
Now, as I’ve said, our gospel narrator presents Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, as a faithful adherent to those laws. He is a righteous man; meaning he demonstrates a commitment to living in right relationship with God and with others. Our vision at Trinity is “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.” Jeremy Grossman, who chairs our discipleship ministries, is fond of summarizing that very simply as “love God; love people.” That’s what righteousness is really about. And that’s what we see in Joseph.
Joseph is an archetype, a pattern, of righteousness. He serves to introduce – one might even say forecast –this righteousness theme found woven throughout the gospel of Matthew; like a strong thread binding it all together. In chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel, we find a block of Jesus’ teaching commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Within that “sermon,” Jesus communicates the true meaning of righteousness in accordance with God’s Word. He makes a distinction between – what we might refer to as – the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. The sermon opens with beatitudes, pronouncements about those who are blessed. Among those who are blessed Jesus names those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Jesus promises; that is a yearning that will be fulfilled. He proclaims, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”[i] Halfway through chapter five, Jesus affirms the value of the law and tells his congregation that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[ii] Well, that sounds discouraging, doesn’t it? I mean, if the educated, religious professionals can’t pull it off, what chance does the everyday Joe – or maybe I should say, Joseph – stand? But, as Jesus goes on to point out in the next chapter, those religious professionals have become caught up in outward appearances. They are more concerned with the praise of others than they are with pleasing their Father in heaven. When they engage in the spiritual practices of prayer, fasting and charitable giving, they do so in very showy, public ways. But, Jesus redefines the meaning (and the practice) of righteousness. He does so by making use of a repeating pattern. Zeroing in on a variety of scenarios, Jesus challenges his audience: “You have heard that it was said” – and then he summarizes a traditional teaching. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He continues, “But I say to you” and what Jesus offers goes far deeper than what is fair, what is expected, what others will notice and praise. Jesus makes clear that righteousness is not a prescribed set of behaviors. Righteousness is a matter of the heart; it is a relational concept. Righteousness, my friends, isn’t about being right; it’s about doing right. Righteousness isn’t about demanding ones rights. Righteousness takes the spotlight off of us (what we know and what we’re entitled to) and makes the “other” the priority. Righteousness means showing the same kind of grace and mercy to others that God shows us. Jesus reminds his listeners that “your father in heaven… makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good.”[iii] Religion is no tit for tat; no quid pro quo. Religion, when properly lived out, seeks to emulate the undeserved, unmerited grace and mercy of God. Religion isn’t merely about knowing or saying the right things. Following Jesus is about righteousness in our relationships with God and others… a righteousness that doesn’t get caught up in legalism; but is governed by love.
And that is, in fact, what we see lived out in this morning’s story of Joseph. Even before the angel’s visit, it is clear that Joseph hasn’t planned to respond to what he can only assume is Mary’s adultery by carrying out the letter of the law. As I mentioned last week, the punishment for adultery allowable in the law, the Torah, was stoning to death. Joseph had every right to have Mary publically humiliated and stoned to death… and, if he had, he would have also put to death the child within her womb. So Joseph, my friends, is clearly no minor character in this story. His decision of how he will treat Mary will determine the fate of Mary and her unborn child, God’s Son, our Savior. After all, 1st century Palestine was a man’s world and, no matter how brave, bold, or beautiful Mary was, without the support of her fiancé Joseph, she wouldn’t have stood a chance. Indeed the salvation of humanity, one might say, rested in the hands of Joseph whose religious and legal right, and even obligation, it was to maintain the righteousness of his family. And, Mary’s pregnancy outside of wedlock meant things were hardly off to a dubious start.
But then an angel comes to Joseph in a dream. And wild as his message sounds, Joseph believes the angel; he does what the angel tells him to do and even goes so far as to refrain from exercising his conjugal rights until after Jesus’ birth. Joseph is, apparently, unconcerned with the letter of the law or with how he will be judged by others. He takes the angel at his word and takes this pregnant virgin to be his wife. In first century Palestine, engagement was serious business and I think we can safely assume their betrothal was cut somewhat short by this unexpected news. And though those ancient peasants might not have been educated, I imagine they could all count to nine… if you know what I mean. But again, Joseph (like Mary) seems unconcerned with the opinions of others. To say Joseph was a remarkable man is an understatement. To say he was a righteous man is to hit the nail more accurately on the head.
Friends, ours is a culture that encourages us to speak our minds and demand our rights. Furthermore, we are conditioned to think that being right makes someone superior and entitled to certain privileges. We all want to be right and being wrong is often associated with feelings of shame and inadequacy. Kathryn Schultz, author of the book, “Being Wrong,” writes, “how do we really feel when people admit their mistakes? When the person in question is a friend or family member, we all too often choose to rub his or her face in the mistake – while simultaneously exulting in our own rightness. Witness, for instance, the difficulty with which even the well-mannered among us stifle the urge to say, ‘I told you so.’[iv] The brilliance of this phrase (or its odiousness, depending on whether you are the one saying it or hearing it) derives from its admirably compact way of pointing out that 1) I was right; 2) you were wrong; and 3) I was right that you were wrong.” Schultz further writes that, in this post-modern age, when public figures admit to being wrong, they are often more criticized than they were by holding fast to their ignorance.
But I don’t think our human addiction to being right serves us very well. The pride and arrogance that accompany such “rightness” breaks down relationships. It sets us at odds with one another and heaps shame on the one who is proven or even presumed wrong or mistaken. Our deep human desire to be in the right threatens peace on earth and destroys good will among men… and women; the very gifts the angels proclaim at our Savior’s coming.
Back when I was pastoring in Gary the conference decided to host a racial repentance and reconciliation service at the site of a long-abandoned Methodist Church there. I’m sure they had the best of intentions. I’m sure they did research to get the facts right on the history of that abandoned, derelict church building. I’m sure some expert consulted the right way to conduct such services. But for those of us living in Gary, it wasn’t well-received. We had little say in the service. I recall a pastor from a large suburban church (who lived 20 minutes away but had never even driven by that church before)… I recall his words to me as folks were milling about before the service began. He told me how he thought they should close all of the little churches in Gary and that the conference should build us a nice, new church. He had clearly researched how a shiny, new building statistically helps with evangelism. But, his words made me furious. I found myself thinking, there’s lots of expert knowledge surrounding us; a lot of right ideas; but no one has bothered to ask any of us what we want or what we need or even what we think. I could have done with a little less right-ness and a little more righteous-ness.
Recently, someone who works for a not-for-profit told me of a donation received (for some paltry amount under $50) that included a note. The note detailed all the things wrong with the organization (according to the donor); detailing all that needed to be gotten right… if their charitable contributions were to continue in the future. No doubt the organization isn’t perfect; but there was nothing charitable about the donor’s arrogant approach.
An ancient church father, Abba Isidore of Pelusia said, “To live without speaking is better than to speak without living. For the former who lives rightly does good even by his silence but the latter does no good even when he speaks. When words and life correspond to one another they are the whole of philosophy.”[v] I might say, when words and life correspond to one another, they are the whole of righteousness. When the angel spoke to Joseph, he said nothing at all. He simply acted in accordance with the Word of God; he acted with righteousness.
Friends, the holidays… sitting at Christmas dinner with extended family and friends whose ideas and words are sometimes disturbing to us… are as good a time as any to practice righteousness; to follow in the footsteps of Joseph and Jesus. We can choose righteousness over right-ness. We can choose doing right over being right; to act according to God’s Words rather than asserting our own words. And we can trust that our humble pursuit of righteousness allows God to use us to accomplish his saving purposes even today. Being right isn’t always right. But when we live righteously – in accordance with God’s Word – we make an opening for God’s salvation. And we deliver into the world the peace and grace of the Christ Child.
[i] Matt. 5:6, NRSV
[ii] Matt. 5:20, NRSV.
[iii] Matt. 5:45, NRSV.
[iv] From the website Freakonomics. “Do We Really Want to Hear Someone Say I Was Wrong?”
[v] From the Desert Banquet: a Year of Wisdom from the Desert Mothers and Fathers by David G.R. Keller; Liturgical Press; 2011.
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