Sermon December 12 – Matt 1:18-25 Ready Aye Ready Rev. Betsy Hogan
"A righteous man”. It’s a very weighty phrase, isn’t it? Which in some ways is sort of a good thing, since it represents nearly everything we know about Joseph of Nazareth.
In human terms, the "father" of Jesus, head of the household in which Jesus spent his boyhood and grew up into manhood. We do know that Joseph was a carpenter, and we do learn from the gospel that he was descended from the family of King David – which might seem to us a strange thing to note, except that it DOES remind us that the impact of Joseph's influence on Jesus' childhood and upbringing was clearly considered significant to the early Christians –
But apart from this noting of his ancestral bona fides, as it were, and the mention of his job, the only other thing we learn is that he was "a righteous man". That weighty phrase.
Which fortunately is unpacked so we'll understand what it means almost immediately, in the story.
Because what makes Joseph "a righteous man", the gospel tells us, is that when he discovers that the girl he’s engaged to has been “found to be with child”, instead of exercising what would have been his right under the law to have her taken out to a public square and stoned to death for what would have been assumed to be adultery, he is merciful enough to instead resolve just to “dismiss her quietly”.
Arrange for her to go visit her aunt in the country, perhaps. Just quietly break off the engagement, no harm no foul, and everybody moves on.
It may not sound exactly "righteous" our ears... It's always struck me as a little bit sinister, in fact: "dismiss her quietly".
But the reality is that all too often, what's described as the “righteous” thing to do is actually the thing that's dictated by rigid enforcement of religious law.
So it could have been, in other words, that when the gospel describes Joseph as being “righteous”, what it meant was that he's very very religious: that he's a firm follower of religious teaching and that he's known to always follow the laws of his faith. Even when that means someone's getting stoned to death for adultery.
Because after all, that’s usually how the word “righteous” is used. It’s usually about someone doing everything right, following all the rules, being really excellent at being religious.
But that's not what the gospel writer is getting at, at ALL, here. Instead, what the gospel writer wants us to understand makes Joseph "a righteous man" ISN'T how perfectly he follows the letter of the laws of faith, but instead how firmly he tempers following those laws with mercy.
Because for righteous Joseph, the laws of faith still stand – the girl he’s engaged to has turned up pregnant and that is not cool, she does have to be punished – but he is kind enough, or thoughtful enough, somehow at least, to temper that law with mercy.
THAT’S what the gospel wants us to understand is as righteous – to be committed to following the teachings of faith, to have respect for the teachings of faith, but to also have the grace to temper them with mercy.
To have respect for the rules, in effect, but to also know when mercy is called for. That's Joseph's "righteousness", according to the gospel writer. It suggests in him the kind of depth of principle and strong values, solid yes, but solid enough to allow the influence and flexibility of kindness and grace -- that are the best of what anyone, and certainly a parent, can display.
Joseph's got it. He's a righteous man in this way. And that’s even before he’s actually decided to BE a parent.
Because it’s only after we’ve already seen what the gospel writer means when he describes Joseph as being “a righteous man” – it’s only after we’ve understood that what righteous means here is, yes, law-abiding but also merciful – that the moment comes in this passage when Joseph then gets asked to go one step further.
To go beyond that notion of righteousness. Into a new crazy place in which… never mind the law and forget all the rules and just do this thing because it’s right. Even though it doesn’t seem right, because it isn’t what the law says and it breaks all the rules, but it is – and if that sounds a little crazy, well, it sort of is, but just do it anyway.
Because Joseph falls asleep and has a dream. Poor fellow, it’s only the FIRST crazy dream with angels he’s going to have, but he doesn’t know that yet. And in this one, what the angel tells him to do is to forget about the law and to forget about the rules – it was great he had the grace to be merciful, but now he’s being asked to go even further.
Beyond being righteous in the sense of rigidly devoted to the rule of law of religious teaching. Beyond even being righteous in the sense of tempering devotion to that law with mercy.
And all the way to a new place in which that law is simply set aside in favour of doing what in this particular context is right. Is best. Is most loving. Not in a sentimental way – we actually have no idea if Mary and Joseph even really KNEW each other very well – but most loving in the sense of making possible the fullest and best life possible for Mary and the baby.
It’ll involve no small amount of personal sacrifice. I think we have to assume that for Joseph it wouldn’t have been easy to take the step the angel calls him to take. But it’s more important that this mother and baby not be consigned to the edges of society, begging like pariahs on street corners and living lives of quiet desperation.
And in the fearsome and often violently patriarchal society in which they live, it’s only Joseph who can keep that from being their fate. It’s only Joseph who can give them the fullest and best life possible in their context.
Simply by going beyond the realm in which decisions are made and actions governed by rules and the law… or even rules and the law but with mercy... and just doing what’s right. What's most loving in the broad sense of just and humane and caring. Beyond "righteous" to simply "right".
The angel tells Joseph to marry her anyway. And Joseph does. It's not trivial. It's not trivial from deep inside the patriarchal culture that Joseph and Mary live within – but it's also not trivial for us now.
Because what we're shown in this story of Joseph's dream is basically a good and honourable and law-abiding person, who awakens to the deeply unsettling realization that there's a law, a teaching, a norm of his culture, that EVEN when it's tempered with mercy, it's simply not consistent with what's right.
And that IS unsettling. Joseph's already not rigid. He knows there's a place for mercy. But being taken beyond that, to a place where the ONLY measure of what he should do or how things should be is "but is this loving, is it caring, is it just, is it compassionate" – that's unsettling.
Rigid rules are easy. They allow us to depersonalize things. We can feel good about being merciful, but that sustains our distance from what the rigidity of the system continues to uphold. Because Mary "dismissed quietly" winds up desperate and alone. Sheltering in a corner somewhere, in a makeshift tent when it's teeming down rain, and easily victimized further.
So Joseph gets unsettled. He gets challenged, he gets pushed. And we're right there with him. Basically good and honourable and law-abiding, and we know the importance of mercy – but no, the angel is telling us. Look again. Is this loving, is this caring, is this compassionate. Because that alone, for God, is the measure of what's right. Amen.