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. 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 does.
If this is the case, 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? Traditionally, there are a few modes of thought to interpreting this passage.
Joseph was a great Jewish disciple and 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, which prescribed that a woman could 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). She was simply and completely faithful to God, and her child is of divine origins. Joseph listens, and does as God tells him.
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. 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.
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, 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 need both Joseph’s? There could be a reason 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.
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.