When the Rules Don’t Work for You

Last Sunday’s gospel reading was about Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus. He is suffering a disorientation similar to what a lot of us have faced when the rules we have been taught to follow no longer work for us.  If you’ve ever had to choose between the law and love, this story is for you. Below is the gospel reading. You might not catch this disorientation and how it applies to many of us, but trust me on this one . . . I will explain it on the other side.

Matthew 1:18-25: Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

These verses tell us three things about Joseph: he is “righteous,” he is disoriented, and he is “afraid.”

Righteous

To understand his disorientation, we have to understand what it meant in the first century to be righteous. It isn’t a description like “he is nice” or “he is smart.” It is more of a designation. The Hebrew word transliterated is “Tsedek.” In our culture, it carries the honor of being designated as an elder or a wise man, but it’s really more like being called “a law abiding citizen.” Except the law that Joseph followed without compromise was the religious law. And being a Tsedek meant Joseph followed the Torah (part of the Old Testament scripture) without compromising.

He ate nothing that was unclean – no lobster or ham. Even meat that was considered clean had to be slaughtered properly. Utensil and serving dishes had to be cleaned properly too. Just having a regular meal was a production for a Tsedek. He could not work on the Sabbath – at all. He could not hangout with unclean people – no gentiles and no misbehaving Jews. Being called righteous was a high honor, but it was a lot of work too.

Now, we shouldn’t confuse him with being a Pharisee. Joseph had certainly memorized and was practiced at keeping all 613 laws of the Torah, but a Pharisee had even more laws to keep – hundreds more. Pharisees were crazy off-the-chart rule keeping radicals. Joseph was just righteous.

Disoriented

The verses above don’t use the word disoriented to describe Joseph, but they do describe a disoriented man. Certainly part of his disorientation was from finding out that his fiancé was carrying a baby that was not his. I can picture Joseph turning things over and over in his head until he begins to ask God the obvious question, “Why me? I am a righteous man, what did I do to deserve this?”

See . . .  righteous people often think they have a contract with God where they figure out the right rules, take great pains to keep them, and in turn, God blesses them. When this doesn’t happen, it is disorienting. We see an example of this in the story of the Prodigal Son where the older son – the good son – has followed all of the commands of his father. But the father doesn’t give him the blessing of a party. Instead, the father gives a party for the younger son – the bad son – who had abandoned the family and squandered their money. The older son thought he had a contract with the father. He would do everything the father asked of him and the father would bless him. When it didn’t happen, the older son becomes disoriented a lot like I suspect Joseph was experiencing.

The loss of the love of one’s life and the loss of a contract you thought you had with God is disorienting enough. But there is more – this is where it gets interesting!

Joseph, being a Tsedek, is naturally going to turn to the scriptures, the Torah, to find out how to handle this situation. Lo and behold, the answer is right there in Deuteronomy 22. Turns out when your fiancé shows up pregnant and it isn’t yours, “She shall be brought to the door of her father’s house, and there the men of her town shall stone her to death.”

Scripture doesn’t say that Joseph even considered doing this. But if he doesn’t, he will be breaking the Torah and he will no longer be a righteous man. His true North, the Torah, isn’t working for him anymore. This is the definition of disorientation!

What scripture says he does consider is “having her disgraced” – an option society had come up with, perhaps to soften the Torah. Some scholars say that meant her nose would be cut off, or she might be whipped until she passed out leaving permanent scars over her entire body and face, or she might be given poison that would kill her unborn child, leave her infertile, but not dead.

Joseph can’t even do what society demands, much less the Torah. His choice is to be a righteous man and follow the rules that he has followed all his life or demonstrate love to Mary and her child by letting them slip out of town quietly.

For the first time in his life, following the rules – following scripture – doesn’t work for him. He has followed the Torah with uncompromising obedience his entire life.  He has followed the rules of his community too. But now he has made up his mind that he cannot and will not follow them! He will not kill Mary. He will not even hurt Mary.

This is never ever ever supposed to happen. The Law and Love are never supposed to conflict. The Law is supposed to be perfect. It was a gift from God. But Joseph, probably without really realizing it, is ready to sacrifice his old definition of righteousness (following the law) and take on one that is much better (loving God and others). In fact, this is the way God had always meant for it to be. Even in Deuteronomy, love fulfills the law. A famous rabbi once wrote, “Love is the whole law, the rest of the law is just commentary.”

Joseph’s choice is between following the law and demonstrating love. Likewise, what rules, what laws, what expectations of society are you and I holding onto that are keeping us from demonstrating love?

Afraid

It is not until after Joseph has made up his mind up and has chosen not to keep the law that an angel shows up.  The angel pushes Joseph one step further: “Do not be afraid to marry her. She is carrying the child of God.”

Joseph chose true righteousness – to love Mary and the unborn baby Jesus – rather than follow the law.  Because of this, the angel encourages him to go all the way and marry her — and raise the baby as his own.

Teach Your Children Well

Now let’s fast forward. When Jesus, now a grown man, was faced with similar choices, how did he know that love always trumps the law?

  • When a man needing healing on the Sabbath, Jesus chose to heal rather than keep the Sabbath holy.
  • When an unclean woman wanted to touch Jesus and anoint his feet, Jesus chose to let her touch him rather than keep the law and remain clean.
  • When a group of men brought a prostitute to Jesus, he chose to let her go rather than keep the law and stone her.
  • When Jesus received a dinner invitation from a tax collector, Jesus accepted rather than keep the law and hang out with clean people and eat clean food.

When Jesus had to choose between the law and love, how did he know what to do?  I believe God used Joseph, a Tsedek, a righteous man, to teach His son well!!

*****

I preached this sermon on December 17 & 18 at the historic St. Stephen’s Episcopal church in Milledgeville, Georgia.  Thank you to Father David and the wonderful parishioners for inviting me!

Check out April’s Books, the Disorderly Parable Bible Studies, for group and individual reading.  She’d love for you to find the words “Follow” somewhere on this page (depending on your browser) and follow her blog too!

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