In [Matthew 2, the evangelist describes] Gentile magi coming to worship the King of the Jews guided by divine revelation through the star, while Jewish leaders who have more precise revelation available in the Scrptures (Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes) seek to kill him - note the plural in 2:20: “Those who sought the child’s life.” One might falsely assume that in Matthew’s dualistic view there are only good Gentiles and bad Jews. Rather, the hero of Matthew’s infancy story is Joseph, a very sensitive Jewish observer of the Law, who is brought through God’s revelation to accept Jesus, saving him from destruction. For Matthew it was perfectly possible to be simultaneously a Law-observant Jew and a Christian, since Jesus proclaimed that every jot and tittle of the Law would be preserved (5:18), praised those who kept even the least commandments (5:19), and appreciated scribes who could treasure what is new along with what is old (13:52). Such Law-observant, believing Jews preserved the memory of Jesus and through their proclamations made disciples of the Gentiles (28:19). Thus, in Joseph, the evangelist was portraying what he thought a Jew should be and probably what he himself was.
In the proclamation of the annunciation scene, this point is worth developing. There is a poignancy in Matthew’s Joseph, righteously concerned for the Law of God, but seeking also to prevent Mary’s public disgrace. Obviously, Matthew’s story may imply Joseph’s love for his bride, but we should not contrast too simply obedience to the Law and love as the opposing motives in his behavior. Rather, Joseph understands that the Law in all its complexity allows behavior that is sensitive, neither assuming the worst nor seeking the maximum punishment. That is why Matthew can reconcile a profound obedience to the Law with an acceptance of Jesus. His objection to the legalists is not that they keep God’s Law exactly, but that they do not understand the depth of God’s purpose in the Law. In 12:1-8 he will describe Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath, accused of condoning violations of the Law, but truly perceptive as to how God has acted in past applications of the Law. In the church of our own times where a mention of law may evoke legalism (either because of past memories or unimaginative enforcement by those who should be interpreting), Matthew’s sensitive description of a Law-obedient or righteous Joseph may give new import to the invocation “St. Joseph.”
Father Raymond E. Brown, S.S.
Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year
Kindle Location 1254