by Stephen Ferguson | 29 December 2023 |
In one of my favorite Jesus parables, the movie Man of Steel, a teenage Clark Kent (played by Dylan Spraberry) is finally told of his alien origins by adopted-father Jonathan Kent (played by Kevin Costner in one of his best-ever performances). Jonathan tells Clark he isn’t just anyone but believes he has been sent to earth for a special reason.
Confronted with this disturbing news, Clark cries out, “Can’t I just keep pretending to be your son?” Jonathan lovingly embraces Clark and replies, “You are my son.” It is one of my favorite scenes.
It also raises an important question, “What makes someone a son, or a father?” Is it mere biology?
This is one of the major themes explored in Man of Steel. Who is really responsible for the creation of Superman, that all-American hero who only uses his superpowers for good, who never lets absolute power corrupt absolutely, and is even willing to sacrifice himself for his adopted planet? Is it the God-like but distant Jor-El, who can only communicate through a hologram (an allusion to both God the Father and the Holy Spirit)? Or do owe Superman’s selfless character more to Jonathan, that down-to-earth farmer from Kansas who extols wholesome, old-school values?
The movie seems to suggest the answer is—well—both of them. Importantly, though, there is certainly the case that Jonathan had as much, if not more, to do with Superman’s being Superman instead of growing up to be some sort of Nietzsche Übermensch.
Joseph was Jesus’ father too!
The same can be said for the real Superman: Jesus of Nazareth. I think Joseph’s role and importance to the Jesus’ story, as a real-life Jonathan Kent, is often underemphasized.
A bigger role is rightly afforded to Mary, the young virgin who is the physical vessel through which God incarnates into the world. That is such a mind-blowingly odd thing to have happened that it rightly deserves significant attention. Some Christians have even built an entire Marian cult around this woman. Others have claimed her as “Mother of God” and other honorifics.
Joseph, by contrast, seems a bit overlooked. This includes the New Testament writers themselves!
The Apostle Paul, whom we should remember wrote his letters before the Gospels, doesn’t mention Joseph at all. Neither does the Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the four biographers of Jesus’ life.
In the Gospel of John, the last of the four narratives, there is a solitary reference to Jesus’ being “the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know” (John 6:42). The context is Jesus Himself referring to His Father who sent Him, by which of course He means God. So the case might be made that even our Lord Himself underplays poor Joseph’s fatherly role.
The only time we hear about Joseph in any meaningful way is in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Here at least we learn that Joseph was from Nazareth (Matt. 2:21-23; Luke 2:4) and works as a carpenter (Matt. 13:54-55). The Bible also suggests Joseph fathered other children (Matt. 13:55), although their exact relationship to Jesus and Mary is not clear.
One story that has always disturbed me a little is when 12-year-old boy-Jesus becomes lost in the Temple. When they finally find him, Mary scolds Jesus and says, Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you” (Luke 2:48). Jesus’ reply is a little confusing and seemingly insolent: “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Even tween Jesus seems to know He has another father other than Joseph. Jesus’ reference to house suggests an intimacy with this other Father beyond how most of us would describe God.
Yet we need to keep reading. Immediately after this exchange, we are told by Luke that Jesus was obedient to them, that is, both Mary and Joseph. “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” (Luke 2:52) The implication seems to be that while Jesus put His Father in heaven first, He still very much respected His earthly one. Jesus pleased both Joseph and Mary, owed His growth in wisdom and stature to them.
What is most important, though, is the fact Joseph is a good man. When he discovers Mary – his intended betrothed – is already pregnant, Joseph intends to divorce her quietly. The Bible tells us he plans to do this to shield her from public disgrace (Matt. 1:19). As we know from the Christmas story, an angel of the Lord then appears to Joseph, explaining Mary is pregnant through the Holy Spirit. While we might not traditionally see Joseph in these terms, this clearly makes Joseph a prophet of God (Matt. 1:20).
There is also the fact of Joseph’s own name. This is clearly an allusion to the very first Joseph, who was sold into slavery, became Pharaoh’s prime minister, and in doing so, ended up saving his whole family by taking them into Egypt. This second Joseph does the same, to avoid Herod the Great’s wrath, causing salvation history to repeat itself: “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet – ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” (Matt. 2:15).
There is also the curious case of Jesus’ genealogy as recorded in both Matthew and Luke. The two sets don’t actually match, a fact that has caused much scholarly debate. Yet in both sets, Jesus’ lineage is recorded as through Joseph, not through Mary (see Matt 1:16 and Luke 3:23). This is a whole discussion in itself, and even as theological constructs, Joseph is afforded significant honor despite not being Jesus’ biological father. Whatever Jesus’ biological origins, Joseph is Jesus’ legal father.
The theology of adoption
The story of Joseph also has broader spiritual implications, because the Bible expounds an entire theology of adoption. Passages such as Galatians 4:5, Romans 8:15, and Ephesians 1:5 all reference the idea of obtaining salvation by being adopted into God’s own family:
“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” (Gal. 4:5) This theme was especially important for early Christianity’s Gentile converts, whose status was always a bit in doubt.
One of the important theological debates of early Christianity is what made someone God’s child, and God their Father? Was it belonging to any particular biological group, a covenant nomism, as Judea’s religious scholars thought? No. Jesus Himself made clear:
“And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.’” (Matt. 3:9)
Even talking about His own biological family, Jesus would explain:
“He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matt. 3:48-49)
And in Jesus’ own satirical and offensive way of speaking, He goes so far as to negate the customary funerary rights owed to earthly fathers:
“Another disciple said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’ (Matt. 8:21-22)
A Father’s Day message for non-biological parents
Many church congregations have special Father’s Day programs. My local Seventh-day Adventist church does.
What some might realize, though I didn’t before looking it up, is that Father’s Day originates as the Feast of St. Joseph, or Saint Joseph’s Day. While Adventists aren’t big on calling historical figures “saint,” the Joseph being referred to here is none other than Joseph of Nazareth, husband of Mary. Thus, Father’s Day is not and never has been a celebration of genetic progenitors.
Father’s Day is a celebration of men—and I hope we would see Joseph as representing all non-biological parental figures, both male and female who have helped young people grow in wisdom and stature. Whether you are an uncle or aunt, stepmother, foster carer, have run a Sabbath School class, or led a Pathfinder club, the story of Joseph is also a story for you. If God Himself incarnate as a young person needed close non-biological parental figures, don’t underestimate just how much impact you can have in someone’s life.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration, and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church.