Why Do We Need Joseph?


abby norman -we need joseph3

Last year my youngest daughter refused to play with the Joseph in her Little Tikes nativity set.

“Mommy,” she asked me, one hand on her hip, the other clutching the chubby figure with a crook in his hand, “if God is Jesus’ dad and Mary is Jesus’ mom then why do we need this guy?” Almost half way done with my Masters in Divinity and the holiday season nipping at my heels, I have been thinking about this question.

Why do we need Joseph? I mean the story is already totally crazy enough—virgin birth, shepherds, angels, kings from the east following a star. I know it was culturally bizarre to have a single mother for the savior of the world, but wasn’t Jesus’ whole life about breaking barriers anyway? Why do we need this guy?

What does Joseph have to teach us? Is he just a figurehead to assuage the cultural pressure? Or is his story something that might really matter in my life? Until my daughter asked me, I hadn’t really thought about him much at all.

As I’ve been thinking about Joseph, I’ve begun to see him as truly remarkable. Joseph is a remarkable ally to Mary and Jesus. He was handpicked for this gig. As the story goes, even when Joseph had no idea that Mary was carrying the son of God, he was already handling this delicate situation with kindness. Legally, Mary being betrothed to Joseph meant Mary was his property. Mary being pregnant, but it not being Joseph’s baby was punishable by death. Even when he had every right to punish her, Joseph was going to spare Mary and honor her dignity.

But then an angel shows up and instructs Joseph to protect Mary. He is instructed to love her and that baby. He is told to use his position as the one who holds the power to protect Mary, and to protect the son of God. God uses Joseph, because Joseph is the one the society has privileged.

I am a firm believer that God is always on the side of the oppressed. As a white, cisgender, straight, highly educated, middle class woman married to a highly educated man, I am not very often the oppressed. I go to a church that affirms my calling, I am in a denomination that has female ministers, and I mostly have the privilege to avoid spaces that feel oppressive to me as a woman. I sometimes ask about myself what my daughter asked about Joseph. If God is on the side of the oppressed (and I am usually not that), then what is my place in this story?

I think mostly I have the same position as Joseph. I have the opportunity to use my privilege to advocate for those who are in the most sensitive places in our societies. Mary was really in a spot. Her life was literally in Joseph’s hands. He did right by her. I don’t often have people’s lives in my hand, but I do have power.

As a writer and an active community member, I know my opinion of people matters. I have watched with shock as people take my suggestions. They sometimes buy the things I say are good. They sometimes read the things I recommend. They sometimes have even sent their child to the school I say I adore. I can be like Joseph and advocate for those who need a little amplification of their voice. I have that. I have that to give.

I don’t know if God actually did need Joseph, and I don’t know if God actually needs me, but this is the way God chooses to work and I am grateful to do my part. I think Joseph was too. Because of Joseph’s wilingness to lend his privilege as a cover to others, he had a firsthand seat to witness Jesus growing up.

I, too, have found that when I side with those in a less privileged position, that is where I see God.