Like Father, Like Son

In recent years, through personal experiences in family life and friendship, I’ve gained a greater awareness of the needs of children who, for one reason or another, need to be fostered or adopted. As a society we rightly give special priority to the care and support of such children.

This Advent I have found myself reflecting on the connection this has with the birth and childhood of Jesus – and particularly the place of Joseph, his adoptive father. It’s inevitably the case that Joseph is overshadowed in the birth of Jesus, not only by Mary and Jesus, but also by angels, shepherds and Magi. Whilst he usually has a place in the crib scenario, he tends to be a seen as a ‘hanger-on’, a sort of silent witness to all that is taking place.

Part of the reason is that we have so little information about him. There’s no mention of Joseph in the New Testament after the visit of Jesus and his parents to Jerusalem when he is 12 years old. When Mary is present, for instance at the wedding in Cana, or at his death in Jerusalem, there is no mention of Joseph, and the likely assumption is that he died before Jesus began his public ministry. Indeed perhaps Jesus became the family ‘bread winner’ until his younger brothers and sisters were old enough to fill this role.

However there are clues in Joseph’s story that can be illuminating.

Firstly, Matthew’s narrative presents Joseph as open to divine intervention – and particularly through two dream-like experiences. His response, when he is assured that he can marry Mary, and in the warning he is given about the genocidal intentions of Herod, is to be decisive, protective and obedient. As Mary is obedient to Gabriel’s call, so Joseph matches her in his readiness to comply with the Spirit’s guidance.

Secondly, we can imagine these qualities would be sustained in Joseph’s care of his adopted son. Eventually they return to Nazareth and Joseph finds work as a builder. We’re probably mistaken if we think of Joseph primarily working with timber. The gospels describe him as a ‘tekton’, a term for someone involved generally in the building industry. The family had returned to Nazareth at a point when Herod Antipas, son of the deceased Herod the Great, had begun the task of restoring and extending the city of Sepphoris, only four miles from Nazareth. Such a task would have required many hundreds of skilled and unskilled workers to be employed there. Stone would have been the primary building material, and the huge advances made in architecture in the early Roman period would be in evidence. Josephus, the chief contemporary historian of the period, describes the restored city of Sepphoris as ‘The Jewel of Galilee’. It seems unlikely that such an important building project, tackled over a number of years, did not include the employment of local tradespeople like Joseph and Jesus.

Thirdly, Nazareth was a small disadvantaged community where poor artisan workers would live. It was in such a community that Jesus spent his early years. The simple village life it maintained would have been in contrast to the wealthy inhabitants of Sepphoris. The gospels tell us that Jesus also was a ‘tekton’ – indicating that in the ‘hidden years’ a key responsibility of Joseph had been to teach Jesus the skills he had, and prepare him for work in his early adult years. However by this time Jesus' is becoming aware of his ‘bigger picture’ mission. At the event mentioned above he spoke to both parents when they were anxious about his whereabouts: ‘did you not know that had to be about my Father’s business.’ (Luke 2:41–51). We can confidently imagine the daily life of Jesus from 12 years upwards being spent obedient to Joseph, as he daily benefits from their special relationship and is re-shaped by the skills he gains and develops, yet knowing that there is a greater work to do. Joseph, his dedicated adoptive parent, would have helped Jesus to ‘grow in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and people’. (Luke 2.52)

Eighteen years later he would respond to the call of his heavenly Father, and the launch of his Kingdom of God ministry. We catch glimpses of his earlier life in parables like the wise and foolish builders, the call of Peter to be the rock on which his community is to be built, and to Jesus being himself the ‘rock which the builders rejected.’ They are pictures that remind us of the faithful role exercised by Joseph, his adoptive father in his early years.

Photo © Ron Doke, used under Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-ND 2.0