David McLoughlin continues his reflections on the life of St Joseph and the lessons we can learn from him.
This article has been adapted from Northampton Diocese’s annual NORES lecture given on 5th October 2021 by David McLoughlin, Emeritus Fellow of Christian Theology, Newman University, Birmingham, nores.org.uk/nores-lecture.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel the mature Jesus will enter Jerusalem as its shepherd king (21:1-11) and speak words of truth and judgement to those in power (21:10). They will attempt to destroy him but God will raise him as the world healer who will then send out his disciples to continue his mission of reconciliation among all peoples. Matthew’s church experienced the very same dynamic and pattern in its own experience. Legalistic Jewish Christians in its midst wanted to close down the mission to those who alone would follow a rigorous interpretation of the Jewish law. This is the sort of interpretation that Joseph as a righteous believer might have been tempted to, on discovering Mary’s pregnancy. But Matthew’s community like Joseph followed the interpretation of the law through the lens of prophetic mercy. And Joseph and Mary in Egypt later in Galilee, as Matthew’s church in Syria, found a warm welcome among Gentiles who recognised the teaching of Jesus as the answer to their own dreams of a healed and reconciled life. And as Matthew looked back, to the beginnings of the life of Jesus with Joseph the dreamer and Mary, he saw the same pattern from the very beginning of Jesus life, indeed from the womb. How blessed were the children of Joseph and Mary to grow in a household of a Father who dreams the dream of the liberating Yahweh and a Mother who sings of her son’s mission in the Magnificat, putting down the mighty and raising the lowly, while he is still in the womb.
In every age we need dreamers like Joseph and singers like Mary who keep us in touch with the mercy and compassion that is the sign of the true righteous and reconciling ones.
Looking at Jesus’ ministry in the light of this background, everything about his attitude towards children becomes clearer. In Jesus’ world, children were valued economically. They worked from an early age carrying water, and doing basic domestic tasks. In the Palestinian milieu they came somewhere between women and slaves in the pecking order. In other words they were people who were without power and totally dependent on others. Again and again Jesus subverts this power structure. Matthew 10:13-16 has people bringing children so that Jesus might touch them much the way a father should to recognise his newborn child. The disciples rebuke the people. Jesus indignantly says to them:
“Let the children come to me; for to such belongs the Kingdom of God. Truly I say to you whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his arms upon them.”
The children, as powerless, symbolise the members of the kingdom. Jesus rebukes the disciples for trying to regulate the kingdom with typically patriarchal control. Mark will speak of children/disciples as “last of all and servant of all” (9:33-36) A kingdom of children is a kingdom of the humble and the powerless. Matthew 18: 1-4 records a similar debate :
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus saying: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly I say to you unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Again a kingdom of children is a kingdom of the humble and the powerless.”
Sadly Joseph the dreamer did not live to see Jesus’ public ministry. And the rest of the family did not initially have his dream experience of God’s word. The reaction among a devout family to Jesus’ teaching was predictable.
For all the extraordinary care of Joseph, Jesus comes from a difficult family background. His birth continues to have a shadow over it that, for all the stories of angels, wise men, shepherds, dreams and dramatic escapes, the story also includes the suspicion of illegitimacy and the expectation of divorce. Some two hundred years later the powerful pagan writer Celsus will try to ridicule the Gospel accounts as myths covering Mary’s rape by a Roman soldier, called Pantera, and many have believed him, including some contemporary scholars. Even those happier, if not exactly canonical, texts within the church like the Apocryphal Gospels have the extended members of Joseph’s family gossiping about the young mother.
In Mark’s Gospel (3:21 and 31-35), which Matthew clearly knew and drew on, we are told that during Jesus’ ministry his relatives thought he was mad. And much later John 7:5 will relate how his brothers did not believe in him. Although after his death, members of his family will appear in prominent roles in the early Christian community. Acts 1:14 tells of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, taking her place within the early community. In Acts 1:14. James the brother of Jesus is a witness to faith in the Resurrection (I Corinthians 15:7) and by the 40s he has become head of the Jerusalem community. Other brothers of the Lord are also mentioned as Christians in Acts 1:14 and I Corinthians 9:5. But for all their faith after the Resurrection during Jesus’ ministry the other children of Joseph whose names the gospels record, Joses, Judah and Simon, would seem to have given their stepbrother a wide berth.
The family if we again take their names seriously, including Jesus/Joshua Joseph, Mary, Jacob, Joses, Judah and Simon (Mark 6:3), imply a devout family perhaps close to Pharisaism. It is the Pharisees who protest in AD 62 at the condemnation to death of Jesus’ brother James, by the Sadducean high Priest Anana, according to the Jewish historian Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 20, 200). Later the Early Church historian Eusebius reports (Ecclesiastical History 3,20, 1-6) how the emperor Domitian summoned the two grandsons of Jesus’ brother Jude and questioned them on their families’ descent from King David which they affirmed. But when he saw their calloused hands from working the land and discovered they were poor smallholders with perhaps 20 acres, hardly a threat to the Empire, he let them go free and shortly afterwards, ceased to persecute the Church.
In the light of the complexity of his own family ties it is perhaps not surprising that Jesus would seek, when teaching about the rule or kingdom of God, to redefine what he calls the family of God.
In the Gospels the patriarchal family is not a value in itself as much later Christian teaching would seem to imply. Family pride and identity are as nothing beside the message of the kingdom.
“Another of the disciples said to him: “Lord permit me first to go bury my Father.” Jesus said to him “Follow me and leave the dead to bury their dead.” (Matthew 8:21-2)
This was, and still is, outrageous and scandalous. To provide proper burial of one’s family members, as no doubt Jesus did for Joseph, for an Israelite, overrode all other religious duties, even Sabbath prayer. But loyalty to Jesus and the proclaiming of the kingdom provides an alternative family. This was shocking to the Israel of Jesus’ day but would form the foundation for the radical multi-ethnicity of the Church that Paul would soon promote – a new universal family. Something one feels Joseph the dreamer would have understood. As Christianity spread through the Empire the Roman Imperial authorities would increasingly see this as subversive, breaking open as it did the received and stable forms of patriarchal power, patronage and control, and of racial and cultural identity. Something Paul would celebrate as a necessary aspect of life after the resurrection.
“But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all Children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3: 25-29)
The symbol of this new family was Jesus’ open table fellowship with prostitutes and sinners, with the excluded, and who if Joseph had been a different man, would have included his mother. Luke 14: 12-14 recounts the parable of the Great Feast where the poor, the maimed, the lame, blind, that is – anyone- regardless of class, rank, grade or sex are all mixed up together. No distinction, no discrimination, no shame, no honour.
In asking us to focus on the figure of Joseph the Dreamer, Pope Francis has given us another way into the very heart of the Gospel of Jesus and his vision of God – alongside all peoples of all cultures and states of life. It is a dream he shares passionately. And as we confront the ongoing pandemic and face, with humility and courage, the challenges to our planet and our inter-related lives, it is a dream we need to open up for our children. Of course some of our young people are well ahead of us and figures like Greta Thunberg have been the unexpected voice of the Angel calling us to protect what is vulnerable and share what is precious. As we do so, we follow the ways of Joseph the dreamer and his dreaming brother Pope Francis, and step into the Jewish dream of tikkun holam – the healing of the creation.
May it be so.
van Aarde, A. “Jesus as Fatherless Child,” pp 65-84 of Stegemann, W. et al. (2002) The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels, Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Barton, S. (2001) Life Together: Family, Sexuality and Community in the New Testament and Today, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark
Catchpole, D.(2006) Jesus People: the Historical Jesus and the Beginnings of Community, London: DLT Minneapolis: Fortress Press
Hanson, K.C. and Oakman, D.E. (2009, 2nd Edition) Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts. Minneapolis: Fortress Press
Keith, C. & Hurtado, L.W. (2011) Jesus Among Friends and Enemies. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic