Influence

 the shape of leadership

The Righteous Dad

What Joseph teaches about being good fathers

George P Wood on June 18, 2021

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This Sunday is Father’s Day. Compared to Mother’s Day, Father’s Day is a mediocre holiday, if it is celebrated at all. Americans feel more ambivalently about their dads than their moms, perhaps because their fathers are abusive or absent from the home.

As a father, bad dads make me mad, and kids with bad dads make me sad. I want everyone to have a healthy relationship with their fathers, like the one I have with my dad. More than that, I want my children to have a relationship with me that’s worth celebrating every day, not just the third Sunday in June.

Let me tell you about my kids. My son is biological, my daughters adopted. I love them equally, but while my son was serendipitous, my daughters were a choice — an easy choice, mind you, but a choice nonetheless. I am one dad in two ways.

Introducing Joseph

So was Joseph. Scripture describes him as “the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah” (Matthew 1:16). He was an adoptive father, in other words, but a biological dad, too. His other sons’ names were “James, Joseph, Simon and Judas” (13:55). While Scripture doesn’t name Joseph’s daughters (13:56), church tradition calls them Salome and Mary/Anna.

The Gospels provide a few clues about Joseph’s background. Genealogically, he was a descendant of King David (Matthew 1:6,16,20; Luke 1:27; 2:4; 3:23,31). Professionally, he was a tekton, which is the Greek word for a carpenter or mason (Matthew 13:55). Like many sons, Jesus followed his father in that trade (Mark 6:3).

Economically, Joseph was lower class, which can be inferred from the offering he and Mary gave for her purification after Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:24, cf. Leviticus 12:8). Religiously, he was devout. Matthew 1:19 uses the Greek adjective dikaios (“righteous, just”) to describe him. The NIV translates dikaios as “faithful to the law,” which gets at the gist of the word.

In the Talmud, both the carpenter and the righteous man were revered religious figures. Avodah Zarah 50b, for example — using Aramaic rather than Greek — considers the carpenter a skilled Bible interpreter. (Paul does something similar in 2 Timothy 2:15 when he urges Timothy to be “a worker … who correctly handles the word of truth,” though he uses ergates instead of tekton.)

The Talmudic term for a righteous man is tzadik. Taanit 23a describes Honi the Circle Drawer, who lived in first century B.C., using that term. Honi’s prayers were so powerful that Jewish sages said to him, “You decree from below, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, fulfills your statement from above.” The Talmud also portrays Honi as a miracle-worker.

It’s interesting to think that the Gospel writers viewed carpenters and the righteous the same way the Talmud did, though it is far from certain.

Three-Dimensional Righteousness

Even if you dismiss the Talmud’s interpretation as anachronistic, Matthew’s description of Joseph as dikaios (“righteous, just”) is nevertheless revealing. If you look at what both Matthew and Luke say about Joseph, you’ll see that they portray his righteousness in three dimensions.

The first dimension pertains to his moral character. “[Jesus’] mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law [translating dikaios], and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:18–19).

In that day, engagement was tantamount to marriage, so Joseph and Marry were considered husband and wife. The wedding had neither been celebrated nor consummated, however, so when Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant, he naturally thought she had committed adultery. The law of Moses permitted divorce in such circumstances, which is why Joseph resolved to do so.

Joseph’s righteousness was expressed through moral character, grounded in spiritual openness, and structured by religious devotion.

But notice how he resolved to do it: quietly so as not to shame Mary. Joseph’s moral character consisted not only of doing the right thing in this circumstance (divorce), but also of doing it the right way (quietly). He used his moral compass but not the bully pulpit. I wonder whether Joseph’s example shaped Jesus’ own approach to sex-shamed females, such as the woman at the well (John 4:1–26) and the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11).

The second dimension of Joseph’s righteousness pertains to spiritual openness. After Joseph resolved to divorce Mary, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream” (Matthew 1:20). The angel instructed him to go through with the marriage and name Mary’s son Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). Matthew then explains that Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus fulfilled biblical prophecy: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (Matthew 1:23, quoting Isaiah 7:14).

It is amazing to me that Joseph was able to hear from God even in his sleep. And it happened two more times (Matthew 2:13,19). This suggests he maintained a regimen of private devotion that shaped his heart and mind, even when they were not under his waking control. I wonder whether that explains why Jesus himself was so sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit throughout His ministry (e.g., Luke 4:1,14,18–19).

Of course, God can speak to anyone, anywhere, anytime, whether they are spiritually open to Him or not. Think of Pharaoh (Genesis 41:1), Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:1), and the wife of Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27:19).

But in Joseph’s case, there is almost certainly a connection between his devotional regimen and his openness to God. We know this because of what Luke 2 says about Joseph’s religious devotion. Together with Mary, Joseph obeyed the law of Moses with regard to circumcision (verse 21, cf. Leviticus 12:3), dedication of the firstborn child (verses 22–23, cf. Exodus 13:2), and post-birth purification (verse 24, cf. Leviticus 12:8).

The couple did “everything required by the Law of the Lord” (verse 39). Moreover, Luke portrays Joseph’s and Mary’s religious devotion as persistent over time. “Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover” (verse 41, cf. Leviticus 23:5).

There is no doubt in my mind Joseph’s religious devotion shaped that of Jesus. Here, I’m talking about corporate worship, not just personal devotion. The Gospel of John records Jesus’ participation in at least two Passovers (2:13; 11:55). He celebrated other festivals at the temple throughout His ministry: unnamed (5:1), Tabernacles (7:2,10), and even Hanukkah (10:22). Apart from annual festivals, Jesus attended synagogue weekly, “as was his custom” (Luke 4:16).

Even with regard to personal devotion, though, Luke says that “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (5:16).

My point is this: Joseph’s righteousness was expressed through moral character, grounded in spiritual openness, and structured by religious devotion. And his righteousness seems to have left an impression on Jesus’ life and ministry, too.

Being Good Dads

So, what does this mean for those of us who want to be righteous dads, like Joseph?

First, it means that a lot of the things we think constitute good fatherhood are secondary at best. Joseph was neither wealthy nor prominent, for example. He was a working-class, journeyman carpenter in a small village in a remote area of the Roman empire.

Dads, we spend a lot of time working hard to give our kids stuff that doesn’t matter. It breaks or gets lost easily, or our children quickly outgrow it. Often, we give them these things in an effort to keep up with the Joneses.

At the end of the day, the stuff that truly matters isn’t even stuff, and keeping up with the Joneses is a fool’s errand, since the Joneses are simply trying to keep up with someone else.

What matters is the example we set for our kids. If they become moral, spiritually open, religiously devout followers of Jesus, we have given them all they really need. Stuff is nice, and so is influence, but only if it’s gift wrapping, not the gift itself.

So, my fellow fathers, this Sunday and every day after, let’s enter Joseph’s workshop and become righteous dads!

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