Don’t you wish we knew more about St. Joseph? I do, especially on his feast day. We will talk about what the Scriptures have to say about him below. But first, the Church teaches us that he was the spouse of Mary mother of Jesus, but the foster father or adoptive father of Jesus. Through church tradition and declaration he is patron of the universal church, of a happy death (since tradition says he died in the presence of Jesus and Mary), of families, fathers, expectant mothers (pregnant women), travelers, immigrants, house sellers and buyers (remember to bury his statue upside down in the lawn), craftsmen, engineers, and working people in general ( with a special feast of St. Joseph the worker on May 1, perhaps to set off the communist May Day). The Roman Martyrology is a book that contains lists of saints (not only martyrs) whose “birthday,” i.e. The day they died and entered eternal life, is listed on that particular day. This is often read aloud in religious communities. The page for March 19 begins, “In Judea, the birthday of St. Joseph, spouse of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary.” I do not know why they think that he died on this day.
In Scripture, Joseph is not referred to at all in St. Mark’s gospel, and is mentioned only twice in St. John’s gospel where the evangelist quotes two different people referring to Jesus as “the son of Joseph.” [Jn 1:45, and 6:42] The first two chapters of St. Matthew’s gospel tell the story of the Nativity and the Flight into Egypt all from the point of view of Joseph, including the genealogy of Joseph descending from King David. Matthew also includes Joseph’s dreams and calls him a “righteous man.” The first two chapters of St. Luke’s gospel tell the story of the nativity from Mary’s point of view, including the genealogy of Mary descending from King David. Luke also includes the story of the birth of John the Baptist, a relative of Mary, along with the Benedictus (the canticle of Zecharias, father of John the Baptist). Luke tells of the Annuciation, along with the Magnificat (the canticle of Mary), and the Presentation in the Temple, along with the Nunc Dimittis (the canticle of Simeon). [These three canticles are all used daily in the Liturgy of the Hours.] Luke also tells the story of the Finding of Jesus in the Temple. St. Matthew and St. Luke also quote others calling Jesus the son of Joseph. Other that these references, there is nothing in the Scriptures about Joseph.
I think that the secret of understanding the Scriptural Joseph is in the relationship between Jesus and Joseph. The simple truth about the Incarnation (simple to say, hard to understand) is this: Jesus is truly God and truly man. It is important to maintain both sides of that statement. If we stress Jesus as God and downplay his nature as man or if we stress Him more man and downplay Him as God, we can run into problems. I think that God understood this, and knowing that He had no first-hand experience of being a man, so he wanted Jesus to have a model of human life to follow. God wanted Jesus to have Joseph to teach him by example in how to be a man, a human being, who followed God’s word.
We have always been taught that Joseph was a carpenter. I am not sure what that means in context. The ancient Jewish territory was not a good place to find wood for carpentry projects. Olive trees, and fig trees are mentioned in the Gospels, but they tend to grow short and are kept that way for the same reason that local apples trees are kept short. They become easy to tend and to harvest, but they are not so good for carpentry projects. For those, Jews sent to Lebanon for the famous cedars. The Greek word that has been translated as “carpenter” is “tekton.” It appears only twice in the New Testament, once applying to Joseph (Mt 13:55), and once applying to Jesus (Mk 6:3). In general usage, it does not seem to be limited to people who work with wood. Rather it seems to be used for “craftsman” or “builder.” It could be what we call a “construction worker,” with no union distinction between nailing wood or laying brick.
In any event, it seems that Joseph taught Jesus a trade. I have no special knowledge of the way of living or the economic system of Galilee in Jesus’ times. But this is what I imagine. From birth to boyhood, Jesus probably spent most of his time with Mary and the women of the village, and learned the lessons that she and they would have taught him, collecting firewood, starting and managing a fire safely, how to work in the little vegetable garden by the side of the house, other things he would have to know to get along in the village, and the endless lists of bits of knowledge not so important individually but critical to know as a whole. As he approached his manhood, maybe around his bar mitzvah, he would have begun to spend less time with the women of the village and more time with the men.
Perhaps it was about this time that Jesus stayed behind near the temple when his parents headed home. Maybe Joseph assumed that he was with the women and wondered when he would be grown up enough to walk with the men. Maybe Mary smiled to think that he was walking with the men, getting ready to assume his rightful place in the village. Who knows? But when his parents discovered him in Jerusalem, he went home with them, and he “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom…” Growing and becoming physically strong is what teenage boys do all by themselves, but for growing strong in character, integrity and wisdom they generally need a model, in this case Joseph.
In one of his parables, Jesus gave us a glimpse of the local economy when he talked about the men being hired by the owner of the vineyard and agreeing for the customary days wage. (Mt 20:1-16) Probably Jesus had seen these scenes for himself, maybe he had been applying for work in this way. In a small village, even a skilled “teckton” might have to do some agricultural work from time to time during the slack season. I can imagine Jesus as a young teenager going out to work with Joseph, maybe not getting paid for it, just to learn the skills. I can see Joseph telling him to “let the tool do the work,” “make sure the tool is sharp. You can hurt yourself with a dull tool.” Joseph could teach him how to use a plumb line, a primitive level, and a measuring rod. Perhaps he could explain the magic of the 3-4-5 right triangle to make proper corners. There is something about a father teaching his son to work. Joseph would also Jesus what we now call “work ethic.” How to make sure the employer got full measure for the price, and how to make sure he did not cheat the worker.
After a days work and the evening meal, Joseph and Jesus could have gone down to the village square to sit with the other men. Jesus could learn from Joseph – when to listen and when to speak, how to show respect to those who deserved it, whom you could trust, and whom you would have to take with a grain of salt. Always learning – this is what a man does; this is how a man acts; this is what integrity and honesty looks like; this is how a real Jew behaves in relationship to the God of Israel. He could learn how to make assessments of men as he did when he first met Nathanael and said,“Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him.” Jn 1:47. My guess is that in his mind, Jesus went back to those days and evenings with Joseph as often as he went back to times with God.
As I indicated above, we do not really know the time of Joseph’s death, nor do we know the manner. But if we assume that he actually did die in the presence of Mary and Jesus, we can assume that Joseph taught Jesus how to die exactly as he taught him how to live. Did Jesus learn to accept God’s will with respect to death? Did he learn to suffer great pain with grace? Did he learn how to be more concerned with those around him than himself? We do not know. We know quite a bit about how Jesus lived as a man and died as a man, and we should understand that in much of what he did he was reflecting what he had learned from Joseph.
God wanted to teach us human beings how to approach living with God and so he sent Moses, the prophets, the evangelists, and the writers of epistles. He gave them words of God to pass on to us in human words so that we could do his will. God wanted to teach Jesus how to live as a human being and so he sent Joseph to accomplish that. If we do not know all we would like to know about Joseph, we should keep in mind that Joseph’s mission was primarily to Jesus and only secondarily to us.