Thomas Griffin 3/19/23
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We do not have a tremendous amount of details about the step-father of Jesus, and he actually never speaks a word in the Scriptures. However, one description that best encapsulates his life is this: Joseph was a “righteous man” (Mt 1:19).
This term is highly specific to the Jewish Bible. Righteousness is a direct reference to a quality of God. To describe a person as such means that there is nothing more to be said about them. The person who acts in a “right” or “just” manner is the one who knows the correct way to act and acts accordingly. There is no dichotomy between his knowledge of the good, and his performance of it. This is someone who acts as God asks us to act.
As one can see in the life of St. Francis and other saints, however, righteousness or holiness is not the result of being strong enough to do good things all the time. Joseph was not free from Original Sin, like his wife was. He simply had deep knowledge of God’s word and he knew the Lord deeply. From this place of intimacy Joseph knew how others should be treated as children of God who had infinite dignity as sons and daughters of the Father.
A common question asked is: if this is the case (that Joseph was so holy and righteous), then why does Joseph, apparently, desire to divorce Mary when he finds out she is pregnant? Why say he is “just” and then in the same sentence seemingly contradict his correct action and example? Traditionally, there are a few modes of thought to interpreting this passage.
Joseph was a great Jewish disciple and he had an intense prayer life, while also having the capacity to recall large portions of the Jewish Law from memory. Once he found out about his wife’s pregnancy, but before they were living together, the only assumption that could be made was that she was unfaithful. Since he knew the Law (Lv 20:20; Dt 22:22), which prescribed that a woman should be stoned to death for adultery, he did not want this news to get out to the public because he was a “just” man and truly loved Mary.
Therefore, he moved to divorce Mary quietly (Mt 1:19) rather than convene a council to judge her case. That night an angel came to him in a dream and told him not to fear: the love of his life was not unfaithful to him (Mt 1:20). The complete opposite was the truth. She was simply and completely faithful to God, and her child is of divine origins. Joseph listens, and does as God tells him. “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (Mt 1:24).
From an early period in the Church, great theologians and spiritual writers have also claimed another option. Joseph acts in this way because he does not feel worthy to be the father of God. We know that he knew of the divine origin because we hear that Mary, “was found with child through the holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18).
How did Joseph know of the heavenly origin of her child? It is easy to assume that his relationship with Mary was instinctively communicative: they told everything to each other. Mary disclosed what the angel had said to her at the Annunciation. Joseph, knowing God so well (another close definition of righteousness), deemed himself not up to this divine task. A separation would be the best way to ensure he did not impact the divine child’s upbringing through his own imperfections.
An angel comes in a dream to tell Joseph that he has been chosen by God for this task. He is worthy to raise the chosen one. Joseph’s worth does not come from what he is capable of, but from the One who is asking him. Upon hearing God’s message he takes his wife into his home and never looks back.
So today many people ask, was Joseph a doubter of Mary’s faithfulness, or was he simply a giant of a man who found himself to not be worthy of Jesus? Many attempt to take sides in this debate and champion the side they believe to be valid. However, maybe we can learn from both interpretations of Joseph’s response?
There could be a divine reasoning behind why we do not know much about this carpenter from Nazareth. Maybe we can utilize both tales to strengthen our faith, especially in this present moment in the Church and in the world. Oftentimes we can suspect the worst of others without knowing what is really going on behind the scenes. We hear people claiming to be working for God’s kingdom, but they appear to be inauthentic to us. Quick judgments are easy to make, but dangerous to make a habit of. We don’t know if Joseph did this exactly, but we do know that the angel comes to dispel his fears.
We also need to be constantly reminded that we are not worthy of God’s grace and life to be flowing in our veins, but that He showers it down on us anyway. Our identity comes from who we are in the eyes of the Father and from the gift that He has bestowed upon us. We are His, and that is always enough.
In the tale of two Joseph’s it is not necessarily about which one wins. It is more about the Son he cares for. Christianity is a religion of divine invasion. Today we celebrate the saint who safeguarded that mission. Let us strive to protect and bring about the continuation of the divine invasion: God’s mission to elect us to be the ones to carry His Son to a world that desperately craves His presence.
Thomas Griffin is the chairperson of the religion department at a Catholic high school on Long Island where he lives with his wife and two sons. He has a masters degree in theology and is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Empty Tomb Project: The Magazine.
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