Craig Keener in this massive commentary on Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) stresses that the writer of this Gospel was intent on teaching people the way of Jesus, that is, the writer saw one of his main roles as that of teacher. One place where Keener taught me was about what Jesus meant when he challenged his hearers:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20 NRSV)
This is easily heard as a call to do more than the scribes and Pharisees, which would be impossible for most of us today. What Jesus is inviting his hearers into is something qualitatively different about how one might think about righteousness. Remember when Matthew edits Mark, he supplies two citations of Hos 6:6 (at Matt 9:13; 12:7): “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,” (Hosea 6:6 NRSV).
So what is this righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees? Keener believes that Matthew has already modeled that kind of righteousness in the person of Joseph.
Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18–25 NRSV)
Joseph, described by Matthew, as righteous, modeled the kind of righteousness Jesus sought. Though Joseph did not understand or accept at first the conditions under which Mary became pregnant, Joseph did not seek a public divorce or separation from the betrothal arrangement, though it was his right, to spare Mary any public shame. Joseph’s righteousness was demonstrated in what he was willing NOT to do, than what he did. Furthermore, Joseph’s character was shown to be righteous in accepting the Lord’s will for his life, even if that meant, his own personal needs were placed on hold for a season.
I want to be righteous like that!