Sometimes Being Righteous Means Disobeying What the Bible Says

“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” (Matt. 1:18–19).

Engagement in that culture was a legal contract. You couldn’t just say, “I’ve had second thoughts, I don’t want to be engaged anymore.” It could be broken only by going to court. It was as binding as marriage. So Joseph and Mary were engaged and may have been engaged for years. Often marriages were arranged by parents years ahead of time.

Before they consummate their marriage, Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant. Matthew says that Joseph is “a righteous man.” For many in that culture that meant that Joseph kept the law of God, he revered the law of God as holy and sought to obey it.

That sounds good, but is slavish obedience to the law—to what the Bible says— always the right thing? 

What does the law say? In Deuteronomy 22:21 it says, “she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house.”

The Jews under Roman rule did not have the authority to carry out capital punishment, but Joseph could have made life difficult for her. Matthew says that because Joseph was “a righteous man” he wanted to handle this quietly so as not to bring public shame and disgrace to Marry.

Fred Craddock, who was a seminary professor and a really good preacher, put it like this in a sermon once: “I get sick and tired of people thumping the Bible as though you can just open it up and turn to a passage that clears everything up. You can quote the Bible before killing a person to justify the killing. ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ the Bible says. Do you know what the Bible says? ‘If a man finds something displeasing in his wife, let him give her a divorce and send her out of the house.’ It’s in the Book. Do you know what the Bible says, ‘Let the women keep their heads covered and their mouths shut.’ Do you want me to find it for you? It’s in there. I run into so many people who carry around a forty-three pound Bible and say, ‘Just do what the Book says.’”  

Being a good Christian involves a lot more than just trying to do what the Bible says. It means that we have to think critically about what the Bible says and then ask, “What is the right and good thing?” Much of the time it comes down to where we put the emphasis. 

Jesus didn’t just quote the Bible; he sorted through it and decided what he would emphasize. In fact, this is why Jesus was considered such a trouble maker. He ignored or dismissed or reinterpreted what the religious authorities emphasized. Jesus had the same Bible they did, but obviously he didn’t read it the same way. He broke Sabbath law in order to heal the sick and he transgressed holiness codes in order to meet the needs of hurting people. 

In his teaching on marriage, for example, Jesus references that infamous passage in Deuteronomy that Craddock mentioned above that says if a man finds something displeasing in his wife he can divorce her. There were some religious authorities that used this law to justify putting a wife away on any grounds whatsoever. It was used abusively. The same way Scripture is used abusively today to keep women out of church leadership or justify male headship in the home. The Bible says it, they argue, and if the Bible says it then that settles it. Well, not for Jesus.

Just because it was in the Scriptures didn’t mean that Jesus accepted it as authoritative. In fact, Jesus put a new spin on it. Jesus reinterpreted it and offered a new reading. Jesus said that the only reason Moses gave them that law was because of their hardness of heart. The Scripture itself said that God gave Israel the Law, but Jesus said, “No, this didn’t come from God, it came from Moses. This was Moses’ idea. And he got pressured into it. It was on account of hardness of hearts that Moses made this concession and it was a really bad idea.” Jesus gave them a critical reading of Scripture. 

You are probably familiar with the story in John’s gospel where Jesus is teaching in the temple courts and suddenly some of the religious leaders burst on to the scene, interrupting his teaching, hurling a woman before him. She had been caught red handed in the very act of adultery. Of course, the man is nowhere around is he? They demand that Jesus render a judgment. They know full well what the law says to do to adulterers; but they also know Jesus well enough to know that he wouldn’t do it, that Jesus would not enforce the law.

Of course, Jesus knew what they were up to and Jesus says, “Okay, you who are without sin cast the first stones.” Nobody cast any stones and before long every one had left and it was Jesus alone with the adulterer. Jesus says, “There is no one left to condemn you, and I am not going to condemn you. Go your way and leave your life of sin.”
The Law, which the Bible says came from God, is quite specific about stoning the adulterer. But Jesus, whom we Christians all believe came from God, says, “Not on my watch.”

So right here in our Bibles are two different pictures of God and two different ways God is pictured as relating to human beings. One says that this action is sin and sin has to be punished. The other says, “No, it doesn’t. Grace is more important than punishment and there are deeper issues of justice here.”

What this all means for disciples of Jesus is that the critical question, the most important question is not: What does the Bible say? The most important question is: How would Jesus read this Scripture? What would Jesus do with it? What new reading might Jesus offer? Or would Jesus simply dismiss it and ignore it as he does the purity laws?

That is the key issue because Jesus is the Christian’s spiritual guide. Jesus is our teacher when it comes to discerning God’s will for our lives, relationships, communities, and our world. Jesus defines for his followers what it means to be “righteous” and sometimes that means disregarding what the Bible says and doing what Jesus says instead.  


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