The Righteous Man

19 Mar

St. JosephToday we celebrate the solemnity of St. Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While it’s not a holy day of obligation in the United States, it is nonetheless one of the most popular feast days in the Church.

While we honor St. Joseph as the model of husbands and fathers, we acknowledge that he considered the possibility of divorce:

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit . . . ‘” (Mt. 1:18-20).

I find that many people, perhaps thinking as 21st-century American Catholics, believe that Joseph wants out because he naturally assumes that Mary has been unfaithful. Is there another way to look at it, though? Consider the following commentary from the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible:

Two interpretations attempt to explain why Joseph decided to separate from Mary. They give opposite answers to the question: Who did Joseph think was the unworthy partner in the betrothal?

The Suspicion Theory

This view holds that Joseph suspected Mary of adultery when he discovered  she was pregnant. The troubling news led him to seek a divorce in accordance with Deut. 24:1-4, although he wished to do this secretly to avoid subjecting Mary to the rigorous law of Deut. 22:23-24, which mandates capital punishment for adulterers. Joseph was a just man inasmuch as he resolved to act (divorce) in accordance with the Mosaic Law. This common interpretation suffers from a serious weakness: Joseph’s desire to follow the law for divorce (Deuteronomy 24) does not square with his willingness to sidestep the law prescribed for adulterers (Deuteronomy 22). A truly righteous man would keep God’s Law completely, not selectively.

The Reverence Theory

This view holds that Joseph, already informed of the divine miracle within Mary (Mt. 1:18), considered himself unworthy to be part of God’s work in this unusual situation (cf. Lk. 5:8; 7:6). His resolve to separate quietly from Mary is thus viewed as a reverent and discretionary measure to keep secret the mystery within her. Notably, the expression “to put her to shame” is weaker in Greek than in the translation: it means that Joseph did not wish to “exhibit” Mary in a public way. The angelic announcement in Mt. 1:20, then, directs Joseph to set aside pious fears that would lead him away from his vocation to be the legal father of the Davidic Messiah. This view more aptly aligns Joseph’s righteousness with his intentions (Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, The Gospel of Matthew, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, 18).

For further reflection on the role of St. Joseph in the mystery of our salvation, I recommend Bl. John Paul II’s 1989 apostolic exhortation Redemptoris Custos (“Guardian of the Redeemer”).

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