Our image of Saint Joseph, our patron, needs refurbishing. For many he is just a silent background figure, bodyguard of Mary and Jesus, breadwinner, obedient and accommodating. And a dreamer. But “Joseph’s influence on his son may have been more important than we have recognised”, Jose Pagola says in his celebrated book JESUS (pg. 67 footnote). Let us have a good look at the picture of Joseph, painted by the Gospels, the collective memory of the early disciples.
Joseph certainly stands out as an intrepid traveller. Living in Nazareth as an immigrant Judean, he travels to Bethlehem, trying – and failing – to keep ahead of the agenda of his pregnant wife. A few years later we see him escaping to Egypt; again a few years later he travels back to Bethlehem, and soon after that back to Nazareth. He did all this in response to warnings given to him by angels in his dreams; we would probably call that: reading the signs of the time.
Joseph introduced Jesus into the Jewish religion. That was his task as a father; he circumcised Jesus and gave him his name. And every morning and every evening he taught Jesus to pray the Shema prayer: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might”. And during the day he taught him to exclaim regularly the Baraka ata Adonai prayer: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord” followed by some fitting words. When Jesus was still very young Mary and the other women of the extended family initiated him in the faith of his people; and later on it was Joseph who brought him into the life of an adult faithful to God’s Covenant. He did this in the old fashioned Galilean way, not in the modern pharisaic way of the Judeans; and Jesus took that to heart so well that at the age of twelve he could pick holes in the arguments of the scribes in Jerusalem.
Joseph injected into Jesus a love for the Temple as the house of the Father, a love so deep that as a young man of twelve it made him forget the travel arrangements of the pilgrim family; and at the critical moment made him throw the corrupt market activities from the Temple; this earned him a death sentence from the priestly hierarchy. He must have made Jesus aware of the ancient messianic expectations of the people of Israel, waiting for a saviour who would be Son of God – that is: king of the royal house of David – as well as Son of Man – that is: filled with divinity like the young man on the clouds in the book of Daniel. That saviour was to start a new Kingdom of God celebrating the forgiveness of sin. Joseph did all this so well, that later on people were amazed and said: where did this son of a craftsman get all this wisdom from? The answer is clear: from Joseph and Mary. And possibly from his relative John the Baptist.
Joseph also taught Jesus to be a professional craftsman. They probably did jobs together in the Nazareth area, spending days together, observing people’s lives together, talking together about the issues of life, about the correct understanding of the Mosaic Law, about the hypocrisy of the religious purity-fanatics from Judea. That is where it dawned on Jesus: Blessed are the poor in spirit: theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
The biggest thing Joseph gave to Jesus was the idea that God was his Abba. Here we must remember that for Jesus “Abba” was originally: Joseph. Whenever Jesus talked of God as Abba, the figure of Joseph was at the back of his mind, supplying the contours of a loving God.
In the end Joseph faded away, but not into oblivion: he became part and parcel of the Gospel.
Hans Burgman MHM