Page last updated



When Righteousness and Compassion Meet
a homily based on Matthew 1:18-25
by Rev. Thomas N. Hall

Isn't this one of the best parts of the Christmas season? Instead of dashing over to the shopping malls to hand over our Visa and Master Charge cards to stressed salesclerks, we've gathered to sing Christmas carols. The red-nosed deer-thing's okay. And Bing's White Christmas is fine, too. But they don't hold a candle to what we've sung this morning. These carols puts Christ back in Christmas and gives us perspective like nothing else will.

Even children can get in on the act of worship when we sing Silent Night or O Little Town of Bethlehem. Sometimes, however, they don't get the words quite right, like these actual kids' bloopers that I recently heard . . .

Deck the Halls with Buddy Holly

O Come, Froggy Faithful

Sleep in Heavenly Peas

We Three Kings of Porridge and Tar Noel,

Noel, Barney's the King of Israel

Eventually we're going to need to make some theological adjustments in our children's theology. Someone's going to have to step up to the table and tell them that Barney's not really the King of Israel. But for now-especially when we sing together-they're a whole lot closer to the real thing than what our culture is trying to tell them.

But did you realize that every time we sing these carols we're a lot like our children? We may not be singing such flagrant bloopers, but we are relying on someone else's interpretation of the gospel stories about the birth of Jesus. There are three things we need to know about songwriters. First, songwriters are folks just like us who read the Bible and then write poetry about what they've read.

Secondly, when their thoughts get some rhythm and warm four-part harmonies, they become Christmas carols that shape our thoughts about the Christmas story. Finally, what we end up singing are selected parts of the birth of Jesus. That is to say, not everything about the birth of Jesus makes it into our Christmas carols.

To illustrate what I mean, let's do a little exercise together. We're going to trace the Christmas story back to the gospels, but by way of our beloved Christmas carols. You'll need your trusty hymnal and Bible and someone sitting next to you to confer with. Let's look at the first two verses of Away in the Manger. Remember these words: " . . . manger, no crib for a bed . . . The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes . . ." Now where in the gospels does that inspiration come from? Matthew, Mark, or Luke?

Now on to It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. Sing with me acapella.


It came upon the midnight clear,

that glorious song of old,

From angels bending near the earth,

to touch their harps of gold.

"Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,

from heaven's all gracious King. "


The world in solemn stillness lay,

to hear the angels sing.

Which gospel account inspires these words? Right. Luke again (2:8-14). Now one final carol to explore: O Come, All Ye Faithful (#234), verses 3 and 4. Sing, choir of angels . . .glory to God, all glory in the highest. See how the shep- herds, summoned to his cradle, leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze . . . Notice where the songwriter gets his inspiration? Luke's gospel.

Remember the rules of the songwriter-they place selected parts of the biblical stories into poetic form and then the rhythm, music and words shapes our faith. If you will carefully read-or sing-your way through all of the carols-you will discover that a certain piece of the Christmas story does not make it into our carols.

See if you can discover the "missing piece" as accounts read from one of the gospel . . .

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place . . .

His mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they were married, she found out that she was going to have a baby by the Holy Spirit, Joseph was a man who always did what was right, but he did not want to disgrace Mary publicly, so he made plans to break the engagement privately.

That is how Matthew begins the Christmas story. That is what does not make it into our Christmas carols. No friendly beasts. No choirs of angels, no shepherds. No announcement: "Peace on the earth, good will to men." No new- born babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. Instead, Matthew opens the Christmas story with a scandal. The kind that we would expect to read in large letters on the front page of those papers that sit on the rack as we check out our groceries: "Pregnant Teen Gives Birth to Alien in Cow Barn." Matthew opens up with a scandal so explosive and horrendous that I think it would have made it on Howard Stern's show. The scandal is so great for pious Jews that without intervention from Rome, it could have ended up in the death penalty.

The gospel according to Matthew begins with this dilemma: a guy discovers that his fiancé is pregnant, but he knows that he's kept his nose clean. That can only mean one thing: his fiancée has been hanging around with other men during their engagement. That's the scandal.

Now why would Matthew go and mess up a warm, Christmas story? Why would anyone want to look for some dirt? Matthew's story is earthy; it's the Christmas story without the halo on. Matthew sees something special about Joseph that will shed light on baby Jesus.

Did you catch how Matthew describes Joseph? "Righteous." The guy who always does the right thing. Joseph reflected all Jews of his day who always did the right thing. They had their theology down tight. Doing the right thing always meant staying far away from defilement. That's being righteous.

So guess what? Along comes a new situation. The scandal. Joseph knows that he cannot tolerate unfaithfulness because the Law does not tolerate unfaithful relationships. He knows good and well that he has never "known" Mary as married people know each other. So he is tom between two loves. A love for God and a compassion for Mary He has no options, just one option: a messy public divorce that would clear his name and cut Mary forever out of his life. That's what the Law of Moses would have commanded him to do.

You can understand now why this part of the Christmas story never made it in the hymnbook. Can you imagine how Joseph would bolt up in bed at night alone and in a cold sweat having nightmares? His fiancée is pregnant but not by him; he must clear his name and get away from this defiling situation, but he doesn't want to humiliate Mary?

Have you ever faced Joseph's cold-sweat dilemma? You know the right thing to do. Know the theology. Know the rules. But suddenly scandal hits you or your family, and suddenly you realize that what good is all the doctrine in the world without compassion? Our lives have been so ordered, so together, so patterned after Scripture. All it takes is one scandal to upset everything. Then we can appreciate the dilemma that Joseph was in.

Probably for the first time in his life, Joseph mixes compassion with Law, righteousness and compassion meet. He decides to do the right thing, but with deep compassion: he will quietly divorce Mary and carry the brunt of the scandal to his grave. Mary , of course, won't have it easy either. She will still come to full term-with or without a father. She will give birth without a husband in a society in which status is determined by being within a man's house. Her child will have no father in a society in which the father's name means inheritance and money. She will bear the emotional scars of having a man leave her; have to go through tough times of raising a kid alone in a very harsh world.

God intervenes through a dream and tells Joseph to go ahead and take Mary as his wife. That she will bear a son and that he is to be called "Jesus," for "he will save his people from their sins." So there goes Joseph, silently stumbling behind Mary to Bethlehem, reminding us of ourselves and of our own stumblings that we hope will be called faithfulness.

I have seen people and congregations sized up by what knowledge they know of the Bible, what beliefs they have, but sometimes with such arrogance and such little compassion that I wonder what kind of righteousness they own.

Matthew wants us to see Joseph and Mary as a kind of new kind of righteousness that their son Jesus will champion. Jesus will redefine what "being righteous" means. No longer will righteousness be just having the right doctrine or the right answers or the right theology.

Baby Jesus will grow up to urge us to "exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees." Righteousness is not just keeping all the rules, Joseph learns. Righteousness is more than just staying out of jail. The new righteousness is our willingness to go sit beside the prisoner. Not keeping an arm's length from sinners and outcasts, but sitting at table with sinners, welcoming harlots to God's kingdom. Because without compassion, we have no righteousness. Amen.