In the Gospel reading for Holy Communion today, I am struck by two words relating to Joseph. The first is the description of him as a righteous man. The second is that he resolved to do something.
To be ‘righteous’ means to seek to live in right relationship with one’s neighbours. It is about the working-out of what that looks like, from day-to-day and from context to context. The Law found in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) is case law, a record of the working out of right relationship in different contexts. It exists to be referred back to in working out what to do in the contexts we might find ourselves in.
The word ‘resolved’ here carries the weight of strong emotion, of anger at a violation of righteousness and of a wrestling with how to respond rightly, having been wronged by another.
Within the collection of case law, there is recorded the case of a woman, engaged to be married, who has or who might have been raped (Deuteronomy 22:23-27). In weighing probability, the law states that if she cries out and is heard, whoever hears her is under obligation to run to her defence, and the community is under obligation to defend her honour by putting the rapist to death.
If this takes place in the countryside, the woman must be given the benefit of the doubt, that she cried out and there was no-one to hear her. On the word of her testimony – a woman, without witnesses – her accused attacker should be put to death.
If this takes place in the town – and by town, we should understand a smaller but also far denser population than in our towns, where there is bound to be someone close by – and she does not call out for help to defend her honour, then the woman is dishonourable, must be assumed to have consensually disregarded her family and her husband-to-be. In this circumstance, both the man and the woman involved must be punished by stoning to death at the gate to the city, where the elders sat to deliberate cases.
It is worth reminding ourselves that this collection of case law is concerned with righteousness, with living in right relationships with our neighbours. This law exists first-and-foremost to set out a society where it is unacceptable to rape a woman, and where it is unacceptable to treat people with contempt – to sin against a woman, and her family (what loving parent or sibling would not be devastated by such pain?), and the man to whom she is engaged. Understood in this light, the motivation is not that a daughter is property to be transacted, at the maximum price.
Within the collection of case law, there is also recorded the case of a husband who discovers something ‘objectionable’ about the woman whom he has entered into marriage with (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). He may write her a certificate of divorce, releasing her from their contract, so that she is free to marry another man. Should that subsequent marriage end, whether by divorce or death, her first husband is disqualified from re-marrying her – though she is not disqualified from marrying a third husband.
What’s at stake here? Well, it is a ruling that protects a husband from being bound to a wife who refuses to take on the particular constraints of being married, and that gives a woman a get-out clause from a marriage she does not choose.
It is also a ruling that protects a wife from being divorced lightly – a husband cannot send his wife away on a pretext in order to marry a younger, prettier woman, only to claim back his first wife should his selfishness not work out as well as he had hoped…
Again, this is case law working-out how to live righteously – and in particular, how to respond righteously when someone acts unrighteously towards us.
(An aside: in Jesus’ time, there was considerable debate over what something objectionable might cover, and how that could be abused to fulfil the letter of the law while doing the very opposite of the spirit of the law.)
Joseph hears news that Mary is pregnant. He is devastated. He feels angry, because the evidence before him points to his having been betrayed by her. Because, as someone who lived a life characterised by seeking to be in right relationship, he is deeply saddened when others choose a different way of living. This is clearly not the result of rape.
Joseph wrestles. He wrestles with how to respond, rightly – the best possible response in a far from ideal circumstance. He wrestles with case law. This is no black-and-white ‘the Bible says x’. The law provides precedents, and drawing on these a decision must be made in this new case.
Precedent would allow Joseph – or anyone else, for that matter – to drag Mary before the elders, submitting her to public disgrace. The ruling might well acquit her – the law calls for the death of the man, or the man and the woman; but the circumstance of a woman brought to trial without a corresponding man lies outside of the precedent. But even acquitted, her reputation would be destroyed, her life – in this town, at least – over.
But another precedent would allow Joseph to dismiss Mary quietly, to set her free to marry her lover, to walk away from any claim to her. This precedent would also allow Joseph to overrule – or at least to speak against – any other call for her public trial.
Joseph the righteous wrestles to reach a righteous resolution to his anger, as opposed to giving that anger free reign. And when he is resolved, what he resolves is to choose mercy.
Being righteous does not mean being resigned. It does not mean that we don’t get angry at the way in which other people treat us or others or themselves. But it means wrestling with how to respond rightly, how to channel and express our anger in a way that is liberating and not destructive. Even if it costs us. Even if it costs us everything.
Only once Joseph has reached his righteous resolution does God step in and give him the fuller picture. Being righteous does not mean being in possession of all the facts. It does not give us insight into other people’s lives, insight that they themselves do not possess.
All the more reason why the righteous are deliberate in seeking resolve.
What, in the world around you, makes you angry, perhaps rightly angry?
How will you resolve what to do in response?