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Plumb—true, precise, upright. According to my skewed memory, “plumb” was one of my grandfather’s favorite words. As a boy, when we would work on little projects together, he seemed forever to be asking, “Is everything plumb?” To my young eyes, everything about my grandfather was plumb. He walked briskly and upright. His hair was combed, his shoes polished. His whole life seemed to have a precision about it.
Because he was a carpenter and a hardware man, this same grandfather comes to mind when I read the stories about Joseph, “a righteous man.” In the Gospel of Matthew, the word “righteous” carries great significance. Written to Christians for whom the wounds of separation from the synagogue were still smarting, Matthew’s Gospel goes out of its way to convey that Jesus had not come to f lout the Jewish law, to lower the bar, to invite moral sloppiness. “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets” (5:17). “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees . . .” (5:20). At the same time, it quickly becomes apparent that Jesus’ righteousness and his fulfillment of the law stretches, distends, and fulfills it to overf lowing.
This reclamation of righteousness in Matthew’s Gospel begins with Joseph, the “righteous man.” Even as Joseph was originally planning to put away Mary, he was going to do it quietly, to avoid disgrace. But then, of course, an angelic visitor changed his mind. When he awoke from his dream, ready to take Mary as his wife, Joseph displayed righteousness that went far beyond scrupulous rule-keeping. Joseph becomes Matthew’s “exhibit A” of the sort of righteousness that does not avoid the messy and tainted, but instead responds with mercy, ingenuity, and aplomb. Yet today, despite the efforts of Joseph and Jesus and Matthew’s Gospel, righteousness still seems so often to connote priggishness and religiosity.
In 1929, my grandfather and his young wife had been planning and saving and arranging for a new home to be built. The basement had been dug out. Then came the stock market crash and the Great Depression. A loan my grandparents had been counting on did not come through. After much deliberation and calculation, the house plans were scaled back. Disappointed and somewhat chagrined, about one quarter of the alreadydug basement had to be filled in. The house went up, a little smaller than planned. If they were saddened by the changes, they didn’t show it. After all, they had a house—a nice house. That was all in the past now.
Except that the back porch of the house had been built on the soil that was refilled when the house was downsized. As fill, that soil continually settled, meaning that the porch gradually sank. Every summer my grandfather, plumb and righteous man that he was, would go out and jack up the porch and level it once more, until the next summer. In a world with unspeakable suffering, to relevel the back porch every summer hardly seems like much to complain about. But I have to believe that this summer ritual was a little humiliating for my grandfather, reminding him once more of his downsized dreams.
Artisans have that uncanny ability to respond with creativity and humility to the unforeseen and the inevitable difficulties that intrude into their work. Far from ruining the project, the unexpected flaw is incorporated in ways that only add to the beauty and uniqueness of the piece. A righteous person does the same thing with his or her life. Beginning with Joseph, and throughout Matthew’s Gospel, we discover a righteousness of beauty and grace, welcome and mercy.
Being plumb is less about being perfectly perpendicular and sharp ninety-degree angles, as much as my grandfather pursued that. With me as his eight-year-old assistant, I’m sure our little projects never met such standards. But they were plumb and righteousness, because my grandfather, with grace and grit, made strong the sagging and good use of the flawed—including me.