19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.
—Matthew 1:19 (CEB)
Matthew’s story of Jesus begins with fathers. At the very beginning, before anything else is said, Matthew provides a genealogical record of Jesus’ ancestry, trying Jesus back to Abraham through the blood lines of his adopted father, Joseph. Matthew, unlike Luke, seems to think that Joseph is important, and tells the entire birth story of Jesus through Joseph’s eyes. So, when Matthew chooses to describe the character of Joseph, it’s probably worth listening to what’s being said.
That description seem to connect righteousness with humility and compassion. Joseph could and should have been upset when he discovered Mary’s pregnancy. In fact, according to the law I believe he could have led the way to her stoning. But Matthew is quick to point out that Joseph was righteous and suggests that it was his righteousness that motivated him to respond with quiet dignity than with public humiliation and wrath. To be a righteous man in this context is to deal with hurts and struggles personally, maintaining compassion for the one who hurts us in spite of our pain and the attack on our dignity. Joseph was humiliated (the engagement was a public act and the pregnancy would have been a public slam in his face) but he would not engage in humiliating the other. And in his quiet righteous response, God came to him and revealed the plans of God.
Oh God, how can I move from self-righteous indignation to your righteousness, maintaining a level of quiet dignity and grace in the face of attack and pain? Make me like Joseph, one who would be a guide to Jesus in his early years, to be a righteous man.