Advent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 1
December 23, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
One of my favorite quotes is from Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of Great Britain. He says, “Americans will always do the right thing, but not until they’ve tried everything else first.” This quote caused me to wonder: what does it mean to do rightly? I actually thought of three ways to take the word “right.” One way to understand right is the sense of moral obligation, to do what must be done no matter how hard. To do the right thing in this case may mean admitting when you’ve made a mistake or doing what the law requires of you. You do the right thing when you leave your contact information after backing into another car in a parking lot. A second meaning of right is doing the thing that gets the best result, such as making a bed or cooking a meal. Finally, a third meaning of right is the thing that is permitted or due to you (it’s my right). It might be my right to open presents first on Christmas since I’m the oldest.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is described as being a righteous man, which implies he knows how to do the right things. All three of these understandings of doing the right thing come into play: the law obligates that Joseph put Mary away for being pregnant, no matter how hard that was for him. It was his right to do so under that same law and he chose the lawful option of doing it quietly, the best result for all parties involved. But in Matthew’s gospel, righteousness or doing the right thing gets transformed by God into what will be called the Greater Righteousness. God’s righteousness, doing the right thing God’s way is a loving, even scandalous righteousness.
From a societal or personal point of view, when Mary becomes pregnant before marriage, especially not from Joseph, it is scandalous and even worthy of stoning, even though Joseph chooses not to do so. Yet the really incredible scandal that should put us back on our heels is theological. God is a different kind of God, one who is Emmanuel, “God with Us.” This God is determined to get involved in the messiness of our world. And if that isn’t outrageous enough, this God has also determined to involve human beings in the work. Loving righteousness, doing the loving right thing the God way, involves using people like you and me.
Our story shows that it takes much more than a miraculous conception to bring Jesus into the world. What Joseph agrees to do, loving righteousness, goes way beyond what society demands as right. But what Joseph does is not beyond what God demands: loving righteousness means taking responsibility for a child that’s not yours and perhaps suffering the blow-back that comes from it. Very often, doing the right thing is not easy, and when it’s God’s work, it is even harder.
We have leaders in our country who seem to be trying everything else except the right thing. It would be easy to take pot shots at them for ignoring the most vulnerable among us, rightfully so. Yet, that doesn’t let us off the hook. We have a place in loving righteousness. The good news for us is that God is already involved in the messiness of our lives and invites us to join in living, loving righteousness. The better news is that we’re not alone because Jesus is Emmanuel, God with Us. For those of you who are already engaged in this difficult work, know that you aren’t alone. For those who aren’t sure what this means for you, ask God for the grace to open your heart to see where God is calling you to join in. Either way, God is with you. Thanks be to God. Amen.