Why Being Right Isn't Always Right
December 20 Sermon on Joseph
Joseph, like Mary and Zechariah, is told not to be afraid but for a different reason and outcome. He is not to be afraid to marry Mary. Joseph had the power to destroy the life of both Mary and Jesus (if Mary was stoned).
What happens is a fulfillment of God’s Word although it transgresses the Torah (God’s Word).
Now fortunately, none of us will ever be entrusted with an assignment quite as radical as Joseph’s and Mary’s. And yet, God may still be calling you to play a part in someone’s deliverance. Only Jesus can save. But God wants us to work alongside him so that the good news of salvation can be heard and received by others. Perhaps there is someone you know this holiday season whose life is shrouded in darkness. Perhaps there is someone who has never experienced Jesus’ amazing grace. Are you willing to do whatever God asks of you so that they may be delivered?
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 personify – God’s Word for those who have not yet read the bible. Now, I don’t know how long that saying has been around; but I imagine that no one is a better illustration of it than Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.
Over the past three weeks we have been looking at stories surrounding the birth of Jesus from the gospel of Luke. Within this sermon series, we’ve been challenged to imagine ourselves within the Christmas story. From our cast of bible characters, we’ve been given examples of what it means to have faith and hope in the fulfillment of God’s promises. Last week, we learned from the example of Mary that our willingness to submit to God’s purposes allows God’s grace to enter the lives of others through us.
But this morning, we find ourselves in the gospel of Matthew. Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus is far more concise. It has no journey to Bethlehem, no manger with hay, no shepherds on a hillside or angels singing in the night. And 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.
Our stereotypical children’s Christmas pageant draws heavily from Luke’s story. And so, Methodist author and speaker Leonard Sweet asks, “Is there any worse role in a Christmas pageant than that of Joseph? Mary coos and beams and acknowledges all the visitors, shepherds adore, angels sing… and even those children cast as sheep and cows get to make animal noises. But Joseph only gets to stand there”… In the eyes of church and society alike, “he is seen as little more than that guy leading the donkey on Christmas cards or the rather ineffectual fellow who couldn’t even find a fit place for his wife to give birth.”
But, as I say, Matthew presents Joseph in a different light. And the story of the angel’s appearance to Joseph introduces the key theme of this 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 be in right relationship with God and with one another. 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; living in right relationship with God and with his fellow Israelites. Joseph is an archetype of righteousness.
And, if you’ll indulge me in these final days leading up to Christmas to skip over Christmas and jump ahead in Matthew’s story, I promise this natal account will become more meaningful to us as we see why Joseph could well have been the inspiration for that saying, “You are the only bible some people will ever read.”
Within the gospel of Matthew, we find a block of Jesus’ teaching that we commonly refer to as the Sermon on the Mount. It encompasses chapters 5, 6, and 7. One might say Jesus was a long-winded preacher... but I doubt anyone ever fell asleep during his sermons. Now, 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. Now I’m only going to draw our attention to a couple passages in that sermon… lest I be a long winded preacher. It opens with beatitudes, pronouncements about those who are blessed. Among those who are blessed Jesus mentions those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Jesus promises; that is a yearning that will be filled. 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 theological topics, Jesus challenges his audience: “You have heard that it was said” – and then he summarizes what the traditional teaching has been. 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. Righteousness, my friends, isn’t about being right; it’s about doing right. Righteousness isn’t about demanding or exercising 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 that God shows us. Jesus reminds his congregation 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, as it’s intended, seeks to emulate the undeserved, unmerited grace and mercy of God.
And with that being said, we can now return to Joseph and the angel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth. Even before the angel arrives, notice 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 by the way, if he had, he would have also put to death the child within her womb. Joseph, my friends, is no minor character here. 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 bold, beautiful or creative 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 very good start.
But then an angel comes to Joseph in a dream. Now, dreams back in those days were taken a lot more seriously than they are today. Yet even so, it would have still been a lot for Joseph to swallow. But 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 outward appearances. He takes the angel at his word and takes this pregnant virgin to be his wife. In first century Palestine, engagement was serious business, my friends, 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 praise or judgment 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.
You know, our culture today encourages us to demand our rights… even if it is to the detriment of someone else. Furthermore, culture teaches us that being right makes someone superior and entitles them to certain privileges and, should their “rightness” ever be challenged or questioned, they ought to plant their flag and stand their ground no matter the consequences. Now, if you think I exaggerate, pay closer attention to our current presidential campaign. Such an ideology spawns a myriad of war-like offenses we endure across our TV and computer screens day after day. 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 holding fast to their ignorance.
But I don’t think our addiction to being right has served us very well. Such pride and arrogance is divisive and antagonistic. It breaks down relationships. It sets us at odds with one another. It threatens any peace on earth and destroys good will. But Jesus – and the example of Joseph – offers an alternative. We can choose righteousness instead. We can choose to reflect God’s mercy and grace. And we can trust that our pursuit of righteousness allows God to use us to accomplish his saving purposes. Being right isn’t always right. But when we respond righteously toward God and others, we make an opening for God’s salvation. And we experience the peace of the Christ Child.
Throughout this sermon series, there’s been a card in the program each week with a suggestion of a way to put the week’s topic into practice. I’d invite you to take this week’s card out of your program. It says “Peace Challenge” and I hope, especially, that you’ll respond to this week’s challenge because it could be an incredible Christmas gift to someone in your life. There’s a devotional and more reflection about peace and righteousness on the Trinity Voice’s blog page. The challenge asks: Do you have an unresolved disagreement with someone? You feel confident you were in the right… and perhaps you were. But how’s that working for you? We don’t experience much peace in the midst of a stalemate. This week, if you have any unresolved disagreements, reach out to the other person with a note or an email. Ignore the issue of right or wrong and simply let them know that you would like to clear the air and be reconciled. Let them know that you value your relationship more than the issue over which you disagree.
Let there be righteousness and peace on earth.
[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?”
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