What Does it Mean to Be Righteous?

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“Joseph took Mary home as his wife” (Matthew 1:24)

In the telling of the Christmas story, Joseph, the earthly “step-father’ of Jesus doesn’t get much attention.  Little is recorded about him other than he was a carpenter by trade (Matthew 13:55) and a descendant of David (John 2:4).  But I learned something recently about him that had previously escaped my attention in the rush to get to the birth story.

“This his how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.  Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19).

In the eyes of the Jewish community, Mary had committed a grievous sin – conceiving a child as an unmarried woman with someone other than her betrothed. According to the religious law, the “righteous” thing to do was to “bring her to the door of her father’s house and there the men of the town shall stone her to death” (Deuteronomy 22:21).  Instead, Joseph chose to handle the situation quietly to spare her from disgrace and punishment.  And because he acted mercifully, God, through the pen of Matthew, declared Joseph “a righteous man.”

Jesus esteemed mercy; He said the merciful will be shown mercy (Matthew 5:7) and declared that God “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 12:8).  His brother James proclaimed, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).  I think, sometimes the church has it backward.  Much like the Jewish religious leaders, we think that righteousness means always doing the right thing; Joseph shows us that righteousness is doing the Jesus thing – showing mercy.  After all, that is the heart of the Christmas story: God’s love poured out in mercy to sinners like you and me through Jesus Christ. 

This Christmas season, is there someone in your life that needs mercy – someone who needs love?  I know this theme is playing itself out in my own family right now.  It will be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, but it is the Jesus thing. Let’s commit to being righteous people – let’s be people of mercy.

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