For someone who never says a recorded word, he made a powerful statement. Joseph, the betrothed of Mary… Joseph, the protector of Jesus… Joseph, the bread-winner of the Holy Family comes to us in scripture as Joseph the silent. But while he never says a single word, there is a single word said of him that speaks volumes. Matthew’s gospel tells us Joseph is “righteous.”
The word has gotten a bad rap lately. It has mistakenly become synonymous with “self-righteous.” And consequently it has become identified with all the petty, often vicious, behaviors that mind-set produces. As such it is also treated as inter-changeable with “judgmental”… a very different proposition all together. Had Joseph been judgmental or self-righteous his reaction to the news of Mary’s pregnancy would have been very different. To the self-righteous, their proud opinions are the only measure of rectitude. In that light Joseph would have been justified in casting the first stone to destroy his seemingly errant bride to be. But Joseph was truly righteous and the source of his righteousness was not pride. It was the love of God… a love he was willing to extend to Mary, even before he learned that her child was conceived of the Holy Spirit.
The Hebrew word used to describe Joseph is sedeq which does not denote an abstract concept of virtue so much as right behavior. But just how right was Joseph’s behavior? By prevailing community standards he was shirking his responsibility. Let this girl get away unpunished, and where will it all end? But Joseph’s measure of rectitude was not his standing in the community or even the letter of the law. Joseph was right with the Lord. He lived in and was guided by the love of God. And as such he was right for the awesome responsibility of nurturing and protecting the fetus, the infant, the child, the adolescent Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Redeemer.
To the contemporary 21st Century ear, there is something quaint and antique about the word and the concept of righteousness. It has the feel of the discredited brand of “muscular Christianity” that was the hallmark of coercive conversions back when colonialism was all the rage. Thankfully the pendulum of popular opinion has long since piqued on that arc. But has it swung too far in the opposite direction? Arguably we live in a world governed by situational ethics where good and evil are relative terms and righteousness is an absolute and therefore obsolete concept.
So what does it mean, if anything, to be righteous today? It means what it always has… to be right with God. And how do we know when we are right with God? We know when he tells us every day. We know when we don’t need a burning bush or an apparition to sense his presence. We know when our life is an ongoing conversation with God. We know when “What Would Jesus Do?” is not a bumper sticker but a reflexive template for our lives. But we’ll only really know when Jesus welcomes us home with a loving: Well done, good and faithful servant. Only then we’ll know that we are with Joseph in the ranks of the righteous.