I spend a lot of time during the Christmas season thinking about Joseph the carpenter, husband of Mary the mother of Jesus. Well, maybe not technically a lot of time, but at least a lot more time than I do the rest of the year. What I think about the most is why we know so little about this man who played such a potentially pivotal role, not only in the Christmas story but also in the story of salvation. He was, presumably, the primary male role model for the young Jesus, at least on the human level.
Joseph is mentioned in only two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, which are also the only two that deal with the birth of Jesus. Nowhere else in scripture is Joseph mentioned. Both Matthew and Luke include Joseph in their respective genealogies of Jesus. Though there are differences between those accounts, both of them trace Joseph’s ancestry to King David.
From Matthew we learn that Joseph was a righteous man. He was engaged to Mary, but before they were married Mary became pregnant, and it wasn’t Joseph’s child. Joseph, “being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away (or divorce her) secretly.” [Matthew 1:19] That one short sentence tells us a good deal about the type of man Joseph was. Righteous, yes. But also compassionate. We don’t know how Joseph came to learn of Mary’s pregnancy. Mary may have told him herself, or perhaps her father broke it to Joseph. I can’t imagine getting that sort of news. Here’s Joseph, looking forward to beginning a new phase of life, getting married and starting a family and then those hopes are shattered. But Joseph doesn’t seek vengeance, doesn’t seek the father of the child, doesn’t put Mary to shame. No. He seeks to send her away secretly to a place where her “indiscretion” would not be so obvious.
While Joseph is still formulating his plan, he is visited by an angel who explains God’s plan for Mary, the baby and Joseph as well. And so Joseph takes Mary as his wife. In Luke we read of how Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem because of the census ordered by Caesar and how Jesus was born while they were there. Luke goes on to record Joseph’s adherence to the Jewish law as he and Mary take Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to dedicate him and offer a sacrifice.
Matthew records two more instances of Joseph being visited by angels. The first is to warn him of Herod’s plan to kill the baby Jesus and to tell Joseph to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, which Joseph does. After the death of Herod, Joseph was once more visited by an angel who told him to return to Israel.
Luke provides our final account of Joseph. It’s when Jesus is 12-years-old. Joseph and Mary were in the habit of going to Jerusalem every year for the Feast of the Passover. That year the young Jesus stayed behind in the temple, unbeknownst to Mary and Joseph who were on their way home with the large group they had traveled with. When they discovered that Jesus wasn’t with the group, Mary and Joseph hurried back to Jerusalem where they searched frantically for him for three days, finally finding Jesus in the temple.
We only learn that Joseph was a carpenter in passing. Matthew records that Jesus went back to Nazareth to teach in the synagogue. The people were amazed and asked themselves “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” [Matthew 13:55] There are a few other places where Jesus is referred to as “the son of Joseph,” but that’s pretty much all we know of the carpenter.
But maybe that’s enough. Maybe the one man in all of history who could call the Savior “son” provides for us, in these scant few passages, an example of quiet, faithful obedience. Of compassion, love, patience and action. I get the feeling that Joseph was satisfied to remain in the background as long as he knew that Jesus and Mary were safe and provided for and that he was obedient to whatever God asked of him. Yeah, that seems like a pretty good example.