If I had boys, and I had to pick a biblical character I’d most want them to grow to be like, it wouldn’t be Moses, or David, or Paul. It would be Joseph. We don’t know much about him, but what Scripture does tell us reveals a man for the ages.
It’s clear Joseph was a “man’s man,” a carpenter, an expert in using his hands. Betrothed to a local girl, plying his trade, things seemed to be going well for him. Until the day the girl turned up pregnant. And, the kid wasn’t his. It’s not like it is now: mildly embarrassing in an intact family, perhaps even commonplace in a dysfunctional one. In that day and culture, Mosaic law prescribed death for her, and enduring shame for him, his family, and her family. Can you imagine? One day you’re a young man with a bright future, and in an instant, it all shatters around you, through no fault of your own.
Betrothal was basically marriage back then, so this seemed infidelity of the rankest, most sordid sort. Joseph was no doubt shocked, angry, rejection, and feeling shame that we who don’t live in an honor culture can’t fully understand. Stoning the girl would restore his honor, and give him some hope of rebuilding his reputation.
But, Joseph was not that kind of guy. Joseph was kind, an unusually good man, a stand-up guy, a “just man not willing to put her to shame”. He obviously wasn’t the sort to bow to the pressures of the mob, no matter how grievous the consequences. Even in the depths of her betrayal, Joseph would stand up for her, stand up for her baby, not let them die. He resigned himself to simply divorce her quietly, hoping and praying what he knew to be futile; that all this would simply die down and he could pick up the pieces of what was left of his life…
Until the angel appeared to him, and told him that the Holy Spirit had conceived the baby. He shouldn’t be afraid to take Mary as his wife, the apparition told him, for this baby would save the people from their sins. Joseph had to be stunned; knew marrying her would probably be worse for his reputation than divorcing her. But, he was a stand-up guy. He did what the angel said.
Life changed forever for Joseph. He became a refugee, secreting his wife and child out under cover of darkness, fleeing to a strange land to save the child from a murderous king. When he returned, he no doubt endured the mutterings and innuendos of a small, backwater, self-righteous town where everyone knew his secrets. How many times did he have to confront people in order to defend his family’s name? How many times did he have to comfort his crying wife, and anguished child, as they suffered the meanness of small-minded, unforgiving people?
In our mind’s eye, we picture Jesus emerging from the womb with everything He needed to be a fully-functioning man in that culture. But, I’ll bet that’s not how it happened at all. He needed someone to teach him to walk, to work with his hands, to interact with others, to shake a man’s hand and look him square in the eye, what loving his family and serving them well looked like. Just like every boy, Jesus needed a role model. And, Joseph was there. Holding the hand that would be pierced for his own sin, kissing the head that would be pierced for his iniquity. Joseph taught God to be a man.
Scripture tells us Joseph had passed by the time the boy became a man and began his ministry. He never saw “the good part.” His interaction with the angel became a distant memory; I wonder if he questioned dozens of times between that day, and his death what actually happened, and what would happen to this boy, now a man. Never actually knowing.
Everyone wants to be great in God’s Kingdom. When we daydream as boys, we picture ourselves as Davids, Moses, and Pauls- men who make history. But, it rarely turns out that way. Our real legacy, our real greatness in God’s economy, rests in the boys and girls into whom we pour our lives: being dads, and teachers, and coaches, and mentors- those who make men (and women) who make history.
My prayer is that I’ll purpose my time to build God’s Kingdom through my own kids and others, rather than building my own kingdom. I want to be a stand-up guy. Like my hero, Joseph.