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San Giuseppe. Saint Joseph. Mary’s husband. Jesus’s supposed father. The patron saint of fathers, carpenters, laborers, of Sicily and Canada.

We Reformed folk have always been pretty allergic to saints—the named, celebrity kind.

There are a tiny handful of congregations in my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, called St. John’s, St. Paul’s, St. Remy. Thanks to our Irish-American neighbors, we are familiar with St. Patrick’s Day, only five days from now. Dutch-American antiquarians are wont to make something of St. Nicholas Day. I’ve blogged here about my “feast day,” St. Stephen’s Day.

Next week, March 19, is St. Joseph’s Day. I’m told it is a pretty big deal for Italians (where it is something like Father’s Day) especially Sicilians. So too, many Italian-Americans mark the day. But coming right after St. Patrick’s, being in Lent, and with Italian-American pride often more focused on Columbus Day (not without its critics, of course), St. Joseph’s Day doesn’t gain wide notice.

Actually, I’m not promoting St. Joseph’s Day.

I want to share some thoughts about Joseph that came to me during Advent last year, when we are more accustomed to hearing about him. And I don’t want to wait until next December to do it!

Humbled

We know very little about Joseph. Only a small portion of the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel gives him much attention.

It’s become a bit cliché, but some clever preacher once quipped, “If Mary is blessed among women, then Joseph is humiliated among men.”

This is surmisal, of course. The Gospel of Matthew tells of the possibility that Mary might have been exposed to public disgrace. But nothing about Joseph.

It doesn’t take much imagination, however, to believe Joseph was the object of whispers, gossip, and the butt of jokes. “I don’t think the boy looks anything like him.” “I heard Mary was pretty chummy with those legionnaires stationed down the road.”

Or possibly the inner voices were more haunting than the sneers and slurs of neighbors. The angelic visitor in his dream evidently changed Joseph’s actions. Did it silence his doubts? Did it undo any feelings of being extraneous, an add-on, almost a sort of beard?

But if Joseph felt any humiliation, it must have been more than offset by the incredible pride and delight at what was happening around him. To what extent he understood Jesus’s future and ministry, we can only guess. I have to think, however, that he sensed that something amazing was afoot here. How to live that joy, how to share that pride in a world that only suspected the strange or the scandalous? How to convey “You may pity me. You may mock me. But you have no idea of the wonder among us.”

Righteous

Righteous is about the only descriptor we get for Joseph. He was a righteous man.

Joseph is Exhibit A in Matthew’s reclamation project of righteousness. Then, as now, righteousness often felt priggish and judgmental.

Matthew’s Gospel goes out of its way to convey that Jesus had not come to flout the Jewish law or to invite moral sloppiness. That said, it quickly became apparent that Jesus’s righteousness stretched and fulfilled the law to the breaking point.

When Joseph awoke from his dream, ready to take Mary as his wife, he displayed a righteousness that was far more than obligation or scrupulosity. He responded with mercy, ingenuity, and assurance. Joseph lived a righteousness that did not avoid the messy or controversial. This, we are being schooled, is true righteousness, reframed around welcome and acceptance.

A New Patron Saint

All of this, and the Holy Spirit, were swirling in me during a sermon last December when I had a discovery. Joseph isn’t only the patron saint of fathers, carpenters, or Sicilians. He is the patron saint of parents of LGBTQ people!

These parents, like Joseph, frequently feel pity or ridicule, sometimes blame, from neighbors. Yet like Joseph, these parents often know the wonder, the joy, the amazing treasure that their children are, but too few can appreciate.

No one plans for their child to be the Messiah of a virgin birth or to be LGBTQ. But by the grace of God—and maybe even an angel visit—parents in such situations often respond with great love. They display a Joseph-like righteousness, righteousness that is more about grace than judgment, loyalty rather than shame, creativity over certainty.

A mother of a gay son shared how when she would tell others that her son is gay, people usually responded with whispered words like, “Oh, I’m so sorry…That must be disappointing, a real burden for you… I’d heard some talk, but I didn’t want to bring it up.”

Then one day she told a person who replied, “Wow, that’s wonderful. You must be so proud!”

Joseph, I think, would understand.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

10 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Steve, you outdid yourself. Wonderful and surprising.

  • Dana VanderLugt says:

    You’ve opened up Joseph — and the idea of righteousness– in a new way for me. Thank you!

  • Sharon Etheridge says:

    wonderful inclusiveness.

  • RLG says:

    Wow, Steve. You got balls. Are you saying Jesus was gay? It sounds like it. Of course, he had no sexual relations with women that we know of. He wasn’t married, so if sex outside of marriage is sin then such action would destroy his sinlessness (at least in a Classical Christian perspective). And he did hang out with, mainly, a group of men. I guess that could be suspicious. But yet we hear nothing of sexual relationships amongst the disciples. He could have been a celibate homosexual. I guess like you, Steve, we are left to conjecture (speaking of your conjecture in regard to Joseph), conjecture in regard to Jesus. I’d be careful preaching such a perspective from the pulpit. It would destroy the image that many in our Reformed denominations have of Jesus.

    But I suppose it is possible, humanly speaking. That’s all we can do, guess at possibilities. Does that throw a different light on Paul’s teaching in regard to having unnatural relationships with the same sex? Of course you could say that the gospel’s teaching on Joseph is more conjecture than fact. Like your conjecture, it contributes more to a legendary tale of Jesus (and Joseph). In fact, what do we really know about Joseph other than hearsay.

    Thanks Steve, for an interesting article. You may well have changed the way I will look at Jesus from here on.

    • George E says:

      RLG, I did not read that Steve was saying Jesus was/is gay. Steve was, as I read it, simply saying that gays, like Jesus is but not the same as Jesus is, are extraordinary. Extraordinary in different ways. He did seem to see a moral equivalence as well.

      • RLG says:

        Thanks, George, for your clarification. You could be right. But Steve does say, “He is the patron saint of parents of LGBTQ people!” That could open the possibility of Jesus being gay. And if Jesus was a celibate gay person, as some of his circumstance could indicate, then he would be perfectly acceptable as a member of our Reformed churches. He might have been gay as to sexual orientation but not a practicing gay. That we find acceptable in our churches, even at present. And it would not conflict with the apostle Paul’s teaching. So whether Jesus was a gay man or straight wouldn’t really matter would it? Either way, it seems unusual for a young man in his thirties to have no interest sexually in the opposite or same sex. Something to ponder. And I think Steve may have opened the door to such thinking.

  • Mike Weber says:

    Excellent and very thought provoking. I like what you have to say.

  • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

    Thanks, George, for reading what I intended. Not at all suggesting Jesus was gay! The equivalence is between Joseph and parents of LGBTQ people, After I wrote, I wondered if the same could be said for parents of physically and emotionally challenged children. They too, I believe, see wonder and extraordinary beauty in their children that the wider-world tends to overlook. The difference might be around the question of “righteousness.” Joseph and parents of LGBTQ people are both examples of expanding righteousness to make it about welcome and acceptance, and blunting judgmentalism. I can’t speak from experience, but I hope parents of physically and emotionally challenged children don’t face the accusation and stigma of moral-failure, at least not as much as they once did. Let us hope that in a generation, the parents of LGBTQ people won’t face it either.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I’ve always figured that the Lord Jesus was celibate because he knew, more or less, earlier or later, what he’d have to do, and it would not have been fair to any wife or child to put them through that. He believed in marriage as “one flesh,” and for him to push so hard as to risk his crucifixion would have been, essentially, infidelity to a wife. So he was what St. Paul calls a “eunuch for the Kingdom.”

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