Not a word in scripture is attributed to Jesus’ adoptive father. Yet in quietly caring for Mary despite the scandal that surrounded her pregnancy, he sets an example for men everywhere, says Michael Frost
There’s much talk these days about the need to recover something called “biblical manhood.” If I’m honest, I’m not completely sure what that phrase means exactly, but I suspect that, when it was coined, its proponents were not thinking of the silent, loyal Joseph obeying an angelic dream and submitting himself humbly to his wife’s God-given calling.
Joseph’s silence in scripture - he never speaks a word that is recorded in any of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life - is particularly startling when we consider what he went through. In his small part in the birth narratives recorded by Matthew and Luke, he goes from humiliation to faith without ever communicating his feelings.
Jesus too will re-process his pain into the supreme act of grace, dying for those who have betrayed him
When we are in pain, we cry out. When we are filled with faith, we express it openly and joyously. In fact, pain and faith are two of our most intensely voiced experiences. There is something seemingly innate within us that means we have to talk them out.
But Joseph encounters these two extremes of human emotion in absolute, resolute silence. There is no cry of rage and anguish, no howls of humiliation, no declarations of faith, no song of hope.
Joseph is the mute saint.
Suffering in silence
Firstly, there’s his pain. His betrothed is pregnant and the child is not his. The shame this would bring upon a man in such a society as his was enormous. He must have felt the hot rush of blood that courses through us when we are humiliated.
Did he feel a howl of indignation rise in his throat? Publicly disowning the child and disavowing the woman would be the least most men would do. Legally, Joseph could have had Mary stoned to death.
When a person experiences humiliation, it activates the same part of the brain that is affected by physical pain. In other words, public shame literally hurts. And pain makes us wail.
In a society as patriarchal as Joseph’s, it would not have been considered untoward for him to shout out his rage, to lash out at Mary for disgracing him. Yet, in his goodness, Joseph is silent. He does not want to expose Mary to public scandal so he resolves to divorce her. Quietly, of course (Matthew 1:19). With Joseph, everything is quiet.
But a dream is all it takes to change everything. A messenger appears to him in his slumber, explaining everything and backing up Mary’s outlandish story, and detailing his next divinely appointed steps (Matthew 1:20-25).
When Joseph wakes, he is filled with an unspoken faith in his wife’s strange commission. There is no song of Joseph recorded in the Gospels. No declaration of faith or clear statement of belief. Joseph simply does as he was told. For him, belief is action.
Quietly, Joseph cared for Mary.
Quietly, he raised the child and named him Jesus.
Quietly, he believed and acted.
New Testament scholar and missionary Kenneth Bailey writes of Joseph: “In his cameo appearance, Matthew presents Joseph as a human being of remarkable spiritual stature. He possesses the boldness, daring, courage and strength of character to stand up against his entire community and take Mary as his wife. He did so in spite of forces that no doubt wanted her stoned. His vision of justice stayed his hand. In short, he was able to re-process his anger into grace.”
Humiliation activates the same part of the brain as physical pain. In other words, it literally hurts
This is the very work Jesus will do at the end of his life. Jesus too will re-process his pain and anger into the supreme act of grace, dying for those who have betrayed him. He too will remain silent as he is humiliated. As Isaiah 53:7 prophesies: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth.”
In this respect, Joseph is a forerunner of the greater things that his adopted son will do. He receives his calling from God and he resolutely obeys.
His example is so provocative because his calling was to quietly support the calling of Mary – to marry her, to name the child, to raise him. And yet the stereotypes of so-called biblical manhood rarely use him as an example.