The Gospel of Matthew presents the most Scriptural information on St. Joseph. Although there might not be many verses about him, we can learn much from what is packed into those verses.
We are first introduced to St. Joseph through the genealogy that St. Matthew presents in his Gospel. The genealogy ends with, "and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ." (Mt 1:16) In this last part of the genealogy, the pattern is broken.
The usual pattern indicated that a person was the father of another person. However, Joseph is not listed as the biological father of Jesus. By abruptly changing the pattern, St. Matthew has prepared us for the story of the Nativity which he wants to tell. And, in this story, we learn several important characteristics about Joseph.
Joseph, the Just Man
The first characteristic is that Joseph is a just man. He is a righteous man. From the Old Testament perspective that means that he knows God's law, loves God's law, and lives out God's law.
Pope Benedict has noted that Psalm 1 provides an apt description of the just man. The just man delights in God's law and he meditates on it day and night. (Ps 1:2) Moreover, he is like a tree that is planted by a stream that bears fruit and prospers. (Ps 1:3) In other words, St. Joseph was firmly grounded in the Word of the Lord as revealed in God's law and because of that he would bear good fruit in his life.
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Applying the Law
Next, we learn that St. Joseph internally considers matters and how he should apply the law to situations in his own life. And certainly, he found himself in a situation which needed his faithful consideration when he learned that his Mary was with child.
In those days, when a betrothal was made, the man and woman lived separately for a time period of up to about a year. It was as if they were married because only death or divorce, which God had allowed due to the hardness of men's hearts, could end the betrothal.
Under the law, Joseph had two options to end the marriage. One is to have Mary brought before a public court and the other is to give her a private certificate of divorce. In charity, he had chosen the latter.
There are three reasons suggested for St. Joseph's decision to divorce Mary. First, he believes that Mary has been unfaithful and therefore as a follower of God's law, he should divorce her. Second, he is utterly perplexed by what has happened because he believes that Mary has not been unfaithful yet she is pregnant. He thinks that his only option is to divorce her. Third, St. Joseph understands that Mary is pregnant by a miracle of God and he considers himself unworthy to be the husband of her.
Given that the Lord had selected Joseph to be the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and that he is called a righteous man, this last option seems the most plausible. A righteous man would be able to discern the impeccable character of Mary, and thus, Joseph would become convinced that Mary was pregnant through the intervention of God. In addition, a just man would have the faith to believe that the Lord could do such an amazing thing. And, finally, as a righteous man, Joseph might, in humility, not believe that he was worthy to be the spouse of a woman who had received such a gift from God.
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Discerning the Will of God
Joseph had considered his options in light of God's law and was planning to divorce Mary privately when he received a message from an angel of the Lord. From the message in the dream, we can see a third characteristic of St. Joseph which is that he is able to discern the Word of the Lord. Because he has steeped himself in God's law, he can recognize the Word of God when it comes to him.
When St. Joseph received the message from the angel in the dream, as usual, the angel addressed the fear of the human. The angel Gabriel told Zechariah to fear not for his prayer was heard. (Lk 1:13) And, Gabriel also told Our Lady to not be afraid, for she had found favor with God. (Lk 1:30)
With St. Joseph, the angel told him to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife. (Mt 1:20) Why? The angel explains that the child who is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. (Mt 1:20) The angel continues to explain that the child is a son who Joseph is to name Jesus because He will save His people from their sins. (The name Jesus means Yahweh saves.)
If Joseph had been told this by Our Lady than the angel confirmed the truth that she is with child by the Holy Spirit. And interestingly, this passage makes clear that Jesus is God. The angel tells Joseph that Jesus will save His people from their sins. Only God can save anyone from their sins. Therefore, Jesus must be God.
What is clear from the passage, is that Joseph received and accepted the message as the Word of God. His familiarity with God's Word allows him to immediately recognize that he had received a true message from the Lord.
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Joseph, a Man of Immediate Obedience
And that brings us to a fourth characteristic of Joseph that we learn from this Gospel passage, namely that he acted with immediate obedience. The passage noted that when he awoke from his sleep, he did as the angel had commanded him. (Mt 1:24) The time for trying to reason the truth had been replaced by a direct revelation, and Joseph did not hesitate to obey.
Joseph might not have understood everything, but he understood what God had clearly told him to do and that was to take Mary as his wife and to name the child Jesus. And when he would name the child on the eighth day after His birth, he would be legally adopting the child. Joseph would be the father of the child Jesus just as if he was his biological father. And, of course, as the legal father of Jesus, he would be even more united with God.
In Matthew's Gospel we learn more about the birth of Jesus through Joseph's perspective. And by giving us this view, we learn about why Joseph is a great saint. He is just, he applies God's Word to his life, he is able to discern God's Word, and he is immediately obedient.
All of these are characteristics, we should strive for in our own lives. Let us ask St. Joseph that we might receive and act upon the grace to be like him in order that we, too, can unite ourselves more fully with Jesus.
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