Righteousness, properly defined by Thayer, is about adherence to the rules of God as well as rules of human origin. The concept of “powers ordained by God” has deep roots, well beyond even Judeo-Christian history. Within our own Scriptural narrative, we have evidence of all kinds of leaders who were believed to be “ordained by God.” Chief Priests, Judges, Kings, throughout history, those who believe in God have trusted the Spirit to put leaders in charge who would seek the will of God and what is best for the people. (I’ll let the reader decide if we still believe this.) The result of such belief is this understanding that the laws made by human beings should be followed because they are inherently just. Martin Luther King, Jr., among many others, have taught us that this isn’t always the case.
In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we get a very early example of one who can be considered righteous even though they do not fully adhere to the laws of the land. Joseph, having heard that Mary was pregnant even though they had not yet known each other, is described by Matthew as “righteous,” but this title brings with it goods in conflict. As a righteous man, Joseph was well within his rights to divorce her very publicly, ruining her life and the life of her child for ever. He could even have her executed for bringing such disgrace upon him and his family. Either of these options would have been considered righteous, yet, for Joseph, they weren’t right. Rather, he planned to release her from her betrothal quietly. She’d still be considered damaged goods and would likely never find a husband to take care of her and her child, but at least, maybe, she could return to her own family.
Joseph the righteous one, who was willing to choose what he thought was the best possible outcome for Mary, was in tune, it would seem, with the will of God. The dream that he has invites him to ignore the laws of the land and to risk everything to take Mary as his wife. His righteousness wasn’t defined by dual allegiance to the laws of God and the laws of humans, but solely on the will of God. His calling was higher than the expectations of human government. His was to welcome the reign of God on earth. As such, Joseph redefines righteousness. While we might not have to make the same exact decision Joseph did, our calling is also to welcome the kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven. This means, sometimes, maybe even most times, we are called to seek the will of God – to love our neighbors, care for the poor, feed the hungry, and proclaim release to the captives – over the expectations of social convention or even the law of the land might have us do.