Holy Discontent

| — Rev. Brandon Dirks — |

Joseph the Absentee Father



I am discontent with Joseph.

Not one word.

In the entire Bible, there is not one word from Joseph.  Not one.  Joseph, the father (or rather adoptive-father) is never quoted.  The most influential person in a Jewish family is silent when it comes to the most influential son in human history.  Not a single word.

The first century Jewish father is expected to pass on the faith to the children.  The father is expected to pass on a trade.  The father is expected to instruct and discipline.  The father is expected to teach obedience to the Law.  The father is the most significant person in a child’s life.  And yet, not a single, solitary word quoted by the father of Jesus?

Some believe Joseph was a great husband (Matthew 1:19) because he did not dismiss Mary when he found out Mary was pregnant.  Remember, Joseph originally wanted to divorce her!  It was not until a dream convinced him otherwise!

Some have said that he was the strong, silent type.  Zero evidence of this assertion.

Others have concluded that he was a great man of faith because Jesus grew to be “strong and wise” in the ways of the Lord (Luke 2:40).  Does this conclusion come because Joseph took Jesus to synagogue and observed the festivals like all the other Jews of the day?  If attendance at church is all it took to raise kids into faith, then we should have a nation full of devoted followers of Christ.  Furthermore, I’ve seen many dads bring their kids to church on Sundays, yet rarely saw their ‘great faith’ the other six and a half days of the week.   Don’t forget, at age 13 Jesus was in the Temple learning (and teaching) the rabbis.  Really, how much help could Joseph have been in the spiritual development department?

Joseph must have been a hard-working carpenter. Seriously?  Although it is clear that Joseph was a carpenter, there is absolutely no evidence that Joseph was a good carpenter, nor good at passing on the trade.  Afterall, Jesus did not become a professional carpenter!

Well, Joseph must have been a loving, compassionate, and caring father who had tremendous influence on Jesus’ development.  Really?  If that were true, where was Joseph during Jesus’ life? He lost him as a teenager at the synagogue and didn’t find him for three days.  What about at Jesus’ trial, whippings, and crucifixion? Mary was there.  Jesus makes a note of it (John 19:25-27).  The Gospel writer also lists several others who were there, but no Joseph.  If my son was falsely accused of any infraction, they’d have to go through ME before they get to my son!  But in Joseph’s case…nothing.  Not a word.

Some have explained all the above that Joseph probably died while Jesus was a teenager.  I’m not sure I buy that either.  My father died 14 years ago, and I still tell stories about the difference he made in my life and the lessons he taught me.  In fact, sometimes I am tempted to put my dad on a pedestal…highlighting only the good things, and letting the not-so-good things fall away.

According to the Gospels, Jesus never mentions his earthly father.  There is no evidence from Jesus’ own lips that Joseph’s life or death had any impact on his upbringing, faith, obedience, or character.  No “My father always said….” No “Let me tell you a story about something my father taught me.”  Nothing.

If Joseph had died early, there is no evidence of how that loss affected Jesus.  Clearly, the loss of Lazarus affected Jesus with the most poignant words in scripture, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).  But nothing about the death of his own father?  I would think losing your father at an early, formative age would have a profound impact—even on the son of God.  Just think of the life lessons that Jesus could have drawn.  Just think of how Jesus could identify with the human experience. The death of my father changed me in more ways that my counselor and I can count—but in Jesus’ father’s case? Nothing.

Well, then, at least Joseph is in the story because he fulfills the prophecy that Jesus must come from the line of David.  True enough.  However, there is just as much proof in the Jewish legal system that Mary served that function.

We are tempted to romanticize Joseph.  But, what if Joseph was a bad father?  What if he simply got up one day and left?  Maybe he started out well intentioned, but lost his way.  Maybe he couldn’t hack being married to a woman who gave birth to a child that wasn’t his.  Maybe he just snapped.   This explanation of his absence is as plausible as any of the above.  If Joseph was a great man of faith, wouldn’t history remember him differently?  If Joseph was a great father, wouldn’t he have a more prominent role in the scriptures?  If Joseph did anything other than be in the nativity, wouldn’t someone, somewhere take note of it?  But there is nothing.

The bottom line:  we really don’t know much about Joseph.  He could have been a great father; or, an absentee father.  We just don’t know.  So, why keep Joseph in the Christmas story?

Simple. Joseph’s story (or lack of it) makes me want to be a better father.  I want to have an impact on my son and daughter.  I want to make sure I set the best example I can of what a father is supposed to be.  I want to show them what a good husband looks like.  I want to make sure they observe first-hand how a good father handles mistakes, problems, anger, and frustration.  I want to make sure I do not neglect my duty to pass on the faith.  I want them to see how I pray, with them and alone; how I am influenced by the scriptures; how I treat others.  I want them to hear me talk about Jesus as if he is my closest friend. I want to make sure that I discipline my kids justly, to teach them what is right and wrong.  I want to show them how to handle circumstances in their lives that are unfair.  I want to show them how to love God with all their heart, and to love others as themselves.

Joseph makes me want to strive to be the very best example of a Godly father that I can be…because I know that by my example, my kids develop their earliest image of who God the Father is.  In the example I set, I want them to know God.

Afterall, that is exactly what Jesus did…he showed us exactly who His real father is…God.  As a follower of Jesus, nothing less is expected of me.  I want to do all I can to show my kids who their Father in heaven is.

For that reason, Joseph deserves a place in the Christmas story.


2 thoughts on “Joseph the Absentee Father

  1. Didn’t Mary have other children, implying that Joseph was around at least for several years after Jesus was born?

    The idea that Joseph’s role in Jesus’ story was to provide a foil or contrast to the Heavenly Father is fascinating. I think perhaps the contrast between Joseph and Mary is even more important and convicting than the contrast between Joseph and God. She gets more biblical press than he does because of her heart felt obedience, right?

    • The bottom line is that we just don’t know. It can be fun imagining, but dangerous to assume. Assuming Mary had other children leads to other assumptions about Joseph…we simply are not sure.

      I have also found it an interesting theological juxtaposition that Mary getting more “press” than Joseph given that the religious and social climate was so patriarchal. Shouldn’t we expect Joseph to be more important in the development of Jesus? This role reversal act is exactly like something God would do 😉 !

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