Today I preached on Matthew 1:18-25, the 'Genesis' (begetting) of Jesus. The statement that Joseph was a righteous man jumps off the text. Is anyone righteous?
Now Romans 3 plays heavy in our theology, Paul’s declaration that both Jew and Greek are under the power of sin. He proceeds to quote from Psalm 14 There is no one who is righteous, not even one. Ironically, Psalm 14 differentiates between “the fools who do not believe in God and eat up my people” and the children of Israel who are called “the company of the righteous.” The Bible does not speak in one, simple voice on the issue.
Theologies are developed from isolated verses or half verses, often times to prove our points. This is called “a proof text.” And while there is no question that all have sinned and no one can stand before God on his/her own, it is equally true that the Jewish Bible does make note of “the righteous.”
Following this theme, Matthew quotes Jesus repeatedly employing the term “righteous” to refer both to individuals and corporately. It is this fact which raises issues in my mind about righteousness.
5:45 Jesus tells us God lets His rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous. If no one is righteous why would Jesus say such a thing?
In 9:13 Jesus says that He has not come to call sinners but the righteous to repentance.
In 10:41 Jesus tells us whoever receives a righteous man because he is righteous will receive a righteous man’s reward.
In 13:17 Jesus tells the apostles that they are blessed because many prophets and righteous ones longed to see the days of the Messiah.
In 13:43 Jesus promises that at the end of time the righteous will shine forth as the sun. And 13:49 at the last judgment the angels will separate the righteous and unrighteous into separate groups (like sheep and goats).
In 23:29 Jesus condemns the Pharisees and scribes for having the outward appearance of righteousness but within they are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. 23:35 He then holds them accountable for the blood of all the righteous that has ever been shed.
Later in 25:37 with a parable where the righteous will ask, “When did we feed thee, give thee drink, visit thee Lord?” And the declaration 25:46 the righteous shall go into eternal life.
As the Gospel concludes both Pilate and His wife declare Jesus to be a righteous man.
“Righteous” in Matthew’s Gospel is not an attribute limited to Jesus. It refers regularly to any number of folks who serve God faithfully. Joseph is the first such one identified.
In an age which disparages “works righteousness” it is probably that Matthew is simply best ignored. Yet there is compelling reason to ponder this word.
Joseph’s dilemma, what to do with the obviously adulterous Mary, is possibly brought forth by Matthew as the first answer to the question, “what is righteousness?” A strict obedience to the letter of the Torah law would say Mary should be executed. In fact, divorce was a more popular option even in those days. But we cannot overstate the power of shame and humiliation. Mary's situation was a grave offense, a capital offense, and in a culture without shame (like America where we flaunt shameful things) it is hard to understand how serious a thing it is. Honor murders in the Middle East still occur, though rarely. Joseph recoiled at such a thing, though his honor was seriously impugned. Love and mercy ruled the day, even if it meant he was humiliated and his manhood mocked.
That is, to my mind, the key. Righteousness is a quality of God. You and I, who are member of God’s people are called to share in the life of God. If God’s Spirit lives in us, we are made righteous, if we live faithfully we are righteous. It is both divine gift and human choice. Both/and. Joseph chose to be holy, to belong to God. His desire to be obedient to God created tension for him, yet his choice, a mix of faithfulness and mercy, resonate with the Torah and Prophets. God demands both. The spirit of the law is still the law, it is just interpreted in the context of the total Biblical record. Some may be tempted to judge others harshly and hide behind the Word as an excuse for scapegoating some subset of sinners. This is behind Jesus' harsh words toward the righteous who would shut others out of the kingdom. On the other hand, in my Episcopal church there is a tendency to make mercy into tolerance. "It's all okay" is the mantra; "it is all about grace" and grace means everything goes. Joseph held the two in tension. He planned to divorce her (Law) but to do it quietly (mercy). This is the heart of righteousness: obedience to God (and when the angel commands him to keep Mary and name the baby Jesus that is exactly what he obediently does).And being righteous meant his ego died. He chose to be shamed in public. He sacrificed himself to spare her. The attributes of God shape us, too. The cross of Jesus is at the heart of God’s righteousness, and it is at the heart of ours as well. TO love God is to embrace others in love. To love God is to be obedient. To be obedient is to be faithful, to be godly, to be righteous. And to be righteous hurts. And hurting is also to be like God, the God revealed in and through the self-sacrificing, crucified Savior Jesus.
We are made righteous by Jesus self-sacrifice, but vicarious righteousness is not the whole story. Jesus also tells us to carry our crosses. Jesus did not "do it all for us" because He left plenty for us to do. Jesus did all God does for us, but the God of covenant expects a response to grace.
Perhaps America would be a different place if Christians focused on their status as the righteous, if we were willing to pay the price for the sins of others. It we were more like Joseph, who embraced righteousness and fathered a savior who makes us righteous.