The Strength of St. Joseph

While St. Joseph seems to have garnered little devotion in the early centuries of Christianity, he eventually has come to be highly venerated for his role as husband of Mary and guardian of Jesus. Moreover, on several counts, he is a model to be imitated by all who strive to walk the journey of life as faithful disciples of Jesus.

Just and Merciful

At the center of Joseph’s worthiness is his character as a righteous (or just) man (Mt 1:19). There can be no greater acknowledgment of any human being’s relationship with God than to affirm that they are just. Justice or righteousness (dikaiosúne in Greek) describes a right relationship with God. “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Mt 5:6). Every aspect of Joseph’s life was ordered to living as God wants human beings to live. Another way to say this is that Joseph lived a holy life; he was a saint.

However, Joseph faced a formidable challenge in his relationship with his new wife, Mary. When he discovered that she was pregnant with child, and that he, her lawful husband, was not the father, he was profoundly disturbed. The evidence pointed to a flagrantly unjust act on Mary’s part: the sin of adultery. Joseph could not take the situation lightly. The Torah calls for drastic measures — namely, that the adulterous woman be stoned to death in order to restore justice (see Dt 22:20-21).

Yet Joseph was deeply troubled by such a harsh requirement. For an importantly related dimension of justice is eleemosúne (“mercy”). “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Mt 5:7). Joseph’s merciful character, not distinct from his justice, would not allow his conscience to put Mary in such a horrific situation. At the same time, he could not just ignore her supposed adultery, thus staying married to her as if nothing had happened. Therefore, he “decided to divorce her quietly” (Mt 1:19), an option apparently allowed on the basis of some Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah’s requirement in the case. But then God’s gracious revelation helped Joseph discern how his wife had become pregnant, and why he had to create a home together with her.

What a model of holiness Joseph is for every follower of Jesus! Joseph shows us in as dramatic a way as possible that justice need not be rigid. True justice is served when it functions in conjunction with mercy. This is a combination that still struggles to gain traction in our nation and our world even 20 centuries after it has been modeled so blessedly by Joseph and taught so forcefully by Jesus.

The Age and Status of Joseph

So how old was Joseph? And who are the brothers and sisters of Jesus referred to in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3? These two questions are fascinating to the followers of Jesus, and they can be treated together. One answer is that Mary and Joseph were both young people. While it is a conviction of Christian faith, clearly expressed in the infancy narratives of both Matthew and Luke, that Mary and Joseph had no sexual relationship before the conception of Jesus, since it was the Holy Spirit who caused Mary to become pregnant with Jesus, still nothing is said about afterward. In fact, the statement of Matthew 1:18, that Mary and Joseph had no relations before the conception of Jesus, can easily be taken to imply that they had a normal marriage after the birth of Jesus and that the brothers and sisters named later in the Gospel accounts are Jesus’ actual siblings. This is the position of not a few Christians, though the Church holds as dogma Mary’s perpetual virginity.

Popes on St. Joseph

An early apocryphal text from the second century, the Book of James, otherwise known as the Protoevangelium, includes the story of how a husband was chosen for Mary (see Chapters 8 and 9). Since Mary was already known to be with child by the Holy Spirit, a suitable guardian had to be found for her and the child to whom she would give birth. A group of men were called together, each with a staff in hand. When a dove flew out of Joseph’s staff, it was clear that he was to be the legal husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus. As it happened, Joseph was an old man who was a widower with children. As an old widower, he and Mary had a celibate relationship, and Joseph’s natural children became the stepsiblings of Jesus. Although it is just a legend, this is a plausible interpretation of the Gospel accounts for the family of Jesus.

Finally, there is the position that Joseph was of a comparable age with Mary, but that together they had the strength to live a loving yet celibate relationship and to devote themselves totally to the upbringing of the very special child of whom Mary was the natural mother and Joseph the supposed father in the eyes of contemporary observers. In this case, the so-called sisters and brothers of Jesus were actually part of the extended family. They were sisters and brothers in a tribal sense, likely cousins.

In the ancient world, and in some cultures today, family is considered in a less nuclear and more tribal sense. This would be an eminently reasonable way to understand the family of Jesus.

In fact, this is how we can easily understand that Mary and Joseph could have lost track of Jesus when they visited the Temple in Jerusalem when he was 12 years old. Because he could have been traveling with his aunts and uncles and cousins, his parents could have supposed that Jesus was making the journey back to Nazareth and had not stayed behind in Jerusalem (see Lk 2:41-48).

Either of the latter two possibilities regarding Joseph’s age and Jesus’ siblings is acceptable in the Catholic view, as long as Mary’s perpetual virginity is believed. In any case, Joseph continued to be the just and merciful man totally obedient to God’s will, who teaches the Christian faithful down the ages how to live holy lives.

The Noble Workman

Besides demonstrating so clearly how to combine justice with mercy, Joseph also demonstrated how to live an ordinary life nobly, as a diligent workman. Joseph was a tékton (“craftsman”) or, more specifically, probably a carpenter (see Mt 13:55). Moreover, he taught Jesus these same skills, as Mark 6:3 indicates (“Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary”).

Joseph manifested the traits of an honest and hardworking tradesman. We can imagine the wonderful relationship that he and Jesus developed as Joseph taught the young boy his trade, and then, perhaps, the two of them together accepted jobs as father and son. Little wonder that St. Joseph should become the patron of those who labor to earn a living and to contribute the wholesome qualities of dedication, hard work and useful activity to strengthen the human social order.

Indeed, Joseph demonstrated in this manner yet another way to be just. It can be expressed in the spirit of the prophet Micah 6:8: “ You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Guardian of Jesus

Besides being a trustworthy breadwinner, Joseph was a loving caregiver, together with Mary, his wife, creating a home in which the incarnate Son of God could grow in “wisdom and age and favor before God and man” (Lk 2:52). While we have just a few details, there is no room for doubt that Jesus experienced a wholesome upbringing. The example of Mary and Joseph provided a healthy home life in which Jesus could pray and study and play and work as he proceeded through infancy and childhood and adolescence to adulthood.

Because Mary and Joseph were faithful to the religious tradition of the Israelite faith, Jesus surely accompanied his father to the synagogue each Sabbath to learn the sacred Scriptures from the local rabbi at Nazareth, along with the current interpretation of how to live out the Torah. At home Joseph and Mary would provide an atmosphere of prayerful adherence to all the details of current Judaism. Obviously, they were attentive to the spirit of Judaism, since, when he became a teacher himself, Jesus always focused on the spirit, sometimes waiving the letter.

As caregiver and overseer of the household, Joseph was always the loving servant. When he and Mary arrived in Bethlehem just as Mary’s pregnancy came to term, Joseph must have been frustrated that there was no suitable place for her to give birth, but he did the best he could in the crude surroundings of cattle and their feeding trough. Later, Joseph would be diligent in keeping Mary and Jesus safe by taking them to Egypt and finding a way to support them there — perhaps plying his trade as a carpenter — until it was safe to return to their hometown of Nazareth.

Years later, when Jesus returned to Nazareth as an adult, preaching like a prophet and healing the sick, the townspeople were astounded. There had been nothing extraordinary about Jesus or his parents when he was growing up. People remembered that his father was Joseph (see Lk 4:22) and that, like his father, Jesus practiced carpentry. In other words, Jesus was not a learned man but a tradesman.

This reaction on the part of the citizens of Nazareth bespeaks the ordinariness and simplicity of the Holy Family. As we reflect on Joseph, we can consider that he was an unassuming and simple man. Indeed, he must have been quite humble, because the Gospels give no indication when he might have died. He simply left the scene quietly as Jesus began his ministry. We can imagine God the Father saying to Joseph, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” (Mt 25:21), as Joseph went to await salvation and the transformation of the Resurrection after the salvific death of Jesus had taken place and Jesus came to lead the just into heavenly glory.

FATHER PETER DRILLING is a priest of the Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., and a professor of systematic and pastoral theology at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, N.Y. He serves as rector of St. Joseph Cathedral in Buffalo.