Preached by the Rev. Wendel “Tad” Meyer
Rev. Meyer is Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church
Beverly Farms, Massachusetts
Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to
expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
Joseph was a righteous man, a just and law-abiding man with a finely- tuned sense of right and wrong. Mary was his betrothed and according to Jewish law, a betrothed woman was already legally bound to her intended husband. Betrothal was a legally defined relationship that could only be dissolved by appropriate lawful measures, namely a writ of divorce. When Mary became pregnant, Joseph had two courses of action open to him. He could place the matter before the court, where it would be decided by a tribunal, or he could handle it more circumspectly, with the help of some loyal friends. Members of the tribunal would probably judge the case in accordance with the unambiguous Deuteronomic law: a betrothed virgin who commits fornication with another man is to be stoned to death along with her lover. For Joseph, a harsh course of action to be sure but one which was certainly warranted by the legal situation. On the other hand, Joseph could choose to deal with the matter more quietly, or privily as the King James’ Version suggests. He could simply serve Mary with a writ of divorce before two witnesses, a more humane course of action that would spare her life, but would, of course mean that she and her child would become and remain outcasts from all respectable society.
Now Joseph was a righteous man, a just man who knew right from wrong, good from evil. He probably did not desire Mary’s death, or perhaps, he simply did not wish to air this rather embarrassing situation in a public arena. Whatever his motive, he determined to dismiss Mary quietly and on the night of his dreamlike vision, he probably fell asleep mulling over the names of his friends and acquaintances, trying to decide who might be a trustworthy and reliable witness.
Joseph was a righteous man, that is, he was bound and committed to the righteousness of the law. He found himself locked in a situation that demanded justice and so he turned to the criterion of the law, to those categories of right and wrong that had guided him through adolescence and adulthood. I do not doubt for one minute that outside of divine intervention, nothing, absolutely nothing, could have dissuaded Joseph from suing Mary for a swift and speedy divorce at the earliest opportunity. Nothing besides the grace of God could have prevented him from seeking legal redress for this unjust and scandalous situation.
Joseph was a righteous man, a man who earnestly sought to live his life in accordance with the discernible limits and patterns of legal justice. He had been raised within the understanding that the law was the font of righteousness, the source of all that was good and holy within the convoluted patterns of human relationships. The law was his rule of life and the source of his self-understanding and self-esteem. It was the very basis of his experience of life’s meaning and purpose, the means by which he evaluated the deeds of others and the mirror through which he judged his own life and actions. Isn’t if fascinating that the first unjust act that this righteous man was forced to embrace was by the command of the Most High. God commanded Joseph to take Mary as his wife, to accept her and her unborn child as his own. To do so was in direct violation of the justice of the law, that criterion of righteousness that enabled him to regard himself as a just and good man. God commanded Joseph to give up that which he held most dear, the very foundation of his identity. God asked him to surrender those categories and definitions that had framed his life and provided him with self-esteem. For Joseph to abandon this well-worn path of self-understanding must have been a terrifying experience. Yet, it was just such a sacrifice that was required so that God’s salvation might come and dwell among us.
Joseph was a righteous man and it must indeed have been a traumatic and painful experience for him to embrace such a sacrifice and yet it was a decision that his adopted son, Jesus of Nazareth, continued to demand of his followers throughout his earthly ministry. The righteous folk that Jesus encountered were asked to move beyond their confining notions of justice and righteousness. Time and time again, they were asked to sacrifice their most cherished standards of human value and self-esteem in order to recognize and accept the merciful righteousness of Almighty God. To be a righteous person according to the law was simply not enough. One had instead to hunger and thirst for God’s mercy, God’s righteousness. One had to be willing to be empty, prepared to be filled and molded by the grace of a God’s transforming, redemptive power.
Joseph was a righteous man, yet God called him beyond his understanding of righteousness. Joseph was a just man, but God asked him to move beyond his frail notion of justice. God called Joseph to a righteousness and justice not based on law, not codified in discernible categories of right and wrong. Instead he invited him to embrace a righteousness anchored in love and mercy, a righteousness that would be expressed through the nails and wood of a bloodied cross and be revealed in the glorious silence of an empty tomb. The righteousness that God offered Joseph would not protect him from the blows and wounds of human injustice and bigotry, but if would free him to face such destructive forces couched and enveloped in the graceful love of a living God. Such righteousness would not instill within him the confidence of self-righteousness, enabling him to feel that he was always in the right, but it would assure him that he was the cherished object of God’s merciful love, no matter what confusing or painful predicament he might find himself entangled within.
Joseph was a righteous man and yet he came to desire God’s righteousness so very much that he was able to lay aside that which he valued most. It was Joseph’s sense of justice that allowed him to live honorably in the world, but it was his thirst for God’s righteousness that made him the recipient and instrument of God’s saving grace.
Like our brother Joseph, we all have various beliefs and values that we use to give our lives definition, providing us with a sense of direction, security and purpose. Such conventions often serve a very useful function, helping us to develop a degree of self-esteem and self-worth, enabling us to create and maintain a sense of identity and integrity. The laws of human justice and the rules of human relationships are necessary ingredients in the management and maintenance of successful socio-political systems and in the creation and preservation of healthy relationships, and yet we must never confuse such laws and rules with righteousness. Being right is not the same as being righteous. One is the product of the law, the other is the gift of grace. Sadly, in our nation and in our church, we are surrounded by folk who would rather be right than righteous. We will not be redeemed by our adherence to the law, as conscientiously as we may seek to follow it. Like our brother Joseph, we will only become the recipient and instrument of God’s love and mercy through our hunger and thirst for God’s grace and our willingness to respond to that grace with love and devotion wherever and whenever we encounter it.
Joseph was a righteous man but God asked him to step beyond the comforting categories of human justice to embrace a life defined by merciful love. In an act of graceful courage, Joseph stepped out into the glorious wilderness of that love and became the vehicle of God’s Incarnate Love. Images of holy family present us with the soft glow of the crèche scene and, if you are anything like me, I tend not to look too intently on Joseph. He almost seems like a secondary character, an extra who has precious few lines in the unfolding drama and who merely occupies a space within the icon of the Nativity. On this Lenten feast day, however, I will look at Joseph with new eyes. I will remember what an incredible sacrifice he made, what a magnificent risk he took, and I will lay at his feet my admiration and respect. Like our brother Joseph, we too have been asked to enter into the wilderness of God’s love. To love those who may have done us an injustice. To reach out to those who have been judged unworthy and undeserving. To find within the patterns of our own minds and hearts a new sense of self-worth that is not dependent on being right or even being good, but which is instead anchored solely in our thirst for God’s love and mercy. This evening as we come to the Holy Table, we must pray that God grants us the courage of our brother Joseph so that we too might be molded by God’s graceful mercy and become, by and through that grace, the means by which a Savior’s love is brought into our broken worlds.
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