There is another important role model in the familiar biblical Christmas story: Joseph. Because we know so few hard facts about this man, it has commonly been assumed that he died before Jesus reached adulthood, but such an assumption is gratuitous. We do not know how old Joseph was or how long he lived after that trip to Jerusalem, when Jesus was twelve. But while we do not know much about him, we do know this: Joseph was not afraid or ashamed to take second place.
Undeniably, in this couple, the woman was the more prominent figure. Very possibly this is one reason many have relegated Joseph to obscurity. Those taught to think of male-female relationships in terms of rigidly dominant/ subordinate roles will not only find it hard to think of Mary as a role model, but they will also feel most uncomfortable facing the tremendous challenge in the life of Joseph.
Those preoccupied with sex roles and the bogeyman of “role reversal” need to see that we are to concentrate on the inner characteristics of a person, not his or her gender. Second Corinthians 5:16, 17 gives us the message that we must no longer think of ourselves in terms of our human nature, our physical “houses.” People preoccupied with role playing also need to remember that God calls us as He wills, and His creative use of His servants transcends any human barriers.
As we look at Joseph’s inner characteristics, his less prominent role need not make us uncomfortable. Just as God chose Mary for her special work, so God called Joseph to his unique place.
Matthew 1:18-25 records Joseph’s commissioning process, and the text says, “… He did what the angel… commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” Think of the strength of character Joseph displayed in this obedient act. Most likely his reputation became tarnished, and he also must have endured the hurt of gossip, which can sting more severely than the lash. But he put aside his personal confusion and his personal desire for a normal marriage relationship. He helped Mary give birth in that stable far from home, a difficult and intimate time for a man who had not had conjugal relations with her. Then, along with Mary, he must have felt astounded at the visit of the shepherds and the wise men and amazed at the words of Simeon and Anna. Luke 2:33 tells us, “The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.”
Next came the hurried and terror-filled flight into Egypt, the burden of providing for the family in a foreign land, and then absorbing the impact of another angelic message, telling them all to return to Nazareth. Once back home, is it not possible that gossip continued as people whispered: “They fled, hoping we’d have forgotten the circumstances of the little boy’s birth when they returned”? Yet regardless of inner turmoil, loss of outward reputation, or risk to his personal safety, Joseph had the strength of character to go on serving as God had called him to.
In our quest to discover how God views roles, the sequence of events in this story is most significant. Mary’s call came first; she obeyed that call. Joseph was in a quandary about how to respond to her call, until God called him, too; then Joseph obeyed the angel’s directive and supported Mary’s call. Joseph had the supporting role: A man was called to be less prominent than a woman.
In obediently taking second place to Mary, Joseph did indeed exhibit great inner strength. We need to be reminded that strength does not always mean being vocal or being visible. Although he might not have put it in these terms, Joseph was an example of the person who knows that all parts of the body are necessary and that the more prominent parts cannot exist without the secondary parts. Nor can the central roles in a drama be properly played out without the full participation of the supporting cast. Joseph felt content to be in that supporting cast and secure in his role, because he knew he was where God wanted him to be.
Beyond Role Playing
Years ago I knew a couple connected with a particular mission, where the wife held the more prominent position. At various conferences I heard some men say: “I wouldn’t want to be her husband.” Those men really meant: “I wouldn’t want to be a Joseph.”
Joseph’s case history challenges men like those. They need to ask themselves these tough questions: Should Christian men find it hard to identify with a man who was a supporting member of the Bible cast? Should a Christian man find it hard to come out and say, “God has called me to be in a secondary role to the woman in my life?” (or indeed to any woman?)
Secular society urges us to be “out for Number One,” and emphasizes getting to the top of any field or profession, but Christ calls all His ambassadors to be servants. Our examination of the lives of Mary and Joseph takes us beyond any artificial sense of competition and beyond any false notion of role playing. Instead it focuses our thoughts
on the inner strength God gives His servants so that they can serve where He wants them to.
Yes, these two were weak and simple in the eyes of the world around them. When they came to Bethlehem that Christmas Eve so long ago, who would have given them a second glance? Later on, if a Roman soldier had traveled through Nazareth, why would he have paid any attention to the humble carpenter and his wife? But think of the strength of their dedication to the call of their Lord.
Think of Joseph’s courage in identifying himself with Mary’s mission, risking misunderstanding, guilt by association, and even physical harm from Herod’s wrath. Think how Mary’s courage shone forth as she followed her mission through to the end, risking religious censure and even physical peril by continuing to identify herself with Jesus, even at the base of the cross. Compare the heroic selflessness of these two “common people” with that selfishness of Abraham—“They will kill me but let you live” (Gen 12:11-13)—or that awful cowardice in Judges 19:22-29, where the overriding motivation was self-preservation at whatever cost to the human life of another.
Both Mary and Joseph presented themselves to God as living sacrifices, and both exemplified the highest ideals of servanthood. It did not matter to them which was to be the more prominent or which was to have the subordinate place. The only important factor was: “We are the Lord’s servants. Be it unto us as He wills.” What a magnificent inspiration these two are! How tragic that the lessons of their lives have been warped or ignored.
So in the final analysis, who can say which of them did have the greater role? This man and woman are an example of the unity of believers; they typify the Bible truth that in human relationships it is not one without the other; and they challenge us today to recognize that obedience to God’s call is what counts in life.
Both men and women need the freedom to emulate this remarkable couple. Both men and women need to ask: Will we dare to be like Mary? Will we dare to be like Joseph? Will we dare to abandon role playing and move out to be the individuals God calls us to be?