Image: Flight into Egypt, Eugène Girardet [Public domain]
To start with, we may ask what Joseph’s relationship with temporal goods was… well, he had none! He travels with his nine months pregnant wife to Bethlehem to fulfill the Roman census, despite having no place lined up to stay—leaving his wife to give birth in a stable cave. There is no second house for Joseph.
His son is then wrapped in rags and placed in an animal trough, Joseph having apparently not bought any newborn clothes, nor a crib, mattress, or sheets. Mary then presents two turtle doves for her purification in the Temple, which is the offering of the poor. Joseph’s job obviously doesn’t make much money.
When he learns in a dream to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod, who will slaughter every male child in the area under two in an effort to eliminate the Messiah, Joseph flees with his family to a foreign country. He does so without a first-class ticket or car with AC. It is simply Joseph himself against whatever weather, bandits, and other obstacles may arise.
Joseph seemingly possessed little, and he certainly didn’t focus on providing luxurious material comforts for his family. There’s even the Gospel passage wherein the people respond to Christ by saying, “isn’t this the carpenter’s son”—as in, who is Jesus to be talking like this when his father was such a low-class worker? Joseph was not of the supposedly elite, learned, and respected class.
Joseph the provider
Having said all this, Joseph’s lack of material goods helped make him a great husband and father, for there was nothing to be attached to that could take him away from the love of God. He was free to be the man that God wanted him to be when grace touched his soul. And his poverty allowed him to renounce anxiety by trusting in God to provide, for it is usually the case that we care the least about material goods when there are no material goods to care about. Hence, when the Roman census tells you to go to Bethlehem and you don’t have a house there, you can simply walk through whatever door opens, even if it’s a stable cave. Thus, the only thing that he had to give to his spouse and child was the exact thing that one ought to give: the love of God, the only thing to which Joseph was attached.
All of this creates a contrast with the modern world: our culture today calls a great spouse or parent the one who alleviates any suffering that his or her family could undergo by way of providing material comforts. All children must have a car when they turn 16, a smart phone, a TV in their room, a fully-paid college education. And should I not alleviate their suffering by providing these material comforts, then I’m not up to scratch as a spouse or parent.
We face intense pressure to provide in this materialistic way. So much pressure that this materialistic mentality is part of the “culture of death”: if I can’t provide a certain standard of material living, then society says that I should be using contraception. If I can’t “afford” any more children, then I should get sterilized. And if all else fails, then I should just abort a baby because his or her life wouldn’t be worth it anyways if he or she had to “suffer” without material comforts. Governments are willing to give aid to Third World countries, but contingent upon their adopting such contraceptive and abortive policies. The materialism of today suffocates life, leading to death.
Saint Joseph, however, stands in contrast. He hardly alleviated any suffering by providing material goods, his family living poor and with murderers after them! I’m sure that Joseph would not have chosen for his wife to give birth in a cave and his family to be homeless while they road-tripped to Egypt. However, God chose to be born in a cave with rags and no place at the inn. At the end of the day, God wants life, which is more precious than any material good.
So what Joseph did provide for his family, which is not anything demanded of spouses or parents by the world today, was exactly what God the Father willed for his family. Joseph, for instance, couldn’t provide a room at the inn for his wife to give birth, but he did bring his family to the stable cave that God had willed for them from all of eternity. Joseph is thus a very different kind of provider from today’s notions.
Getting our priorities straight
This, of course, is what Joseph teaches us about being a husband or wife and father or mother: it’s not about six figures, smart phones, or anything else that people choose over having children. At the end of the day, the material comforts that the world pressures us to provide are not going to be part of our judgment. God is not going to ask us at our judgment, for example, whether we gave our children cars or paid for a college education. We might like to think that we can provide these, but they’re not necessary. What is going to be asked of us, though, is whether we were virtuous like Joseph. Did our children see us on our knees worshipping God? Did we pray with our spouse? Did we read Scripture with our family? Did our children see us going to Mass, loving the Mass? Did our children see that we worked hard to provide, but weren’t obsessed with our job? Were we actually around our children or were we so obsessed with working because we needed money to buy this or that that they never actually had a conversation with us?
What St. Joseph shows us is how to seek first the Kingdom by living the Evangelical Counsel of poverty in spirit: “worry” first about being holy and let God provide the rest, and accept whatever material comforts, or lack thereof, that entails. For while the world might consider material comforts the be-all and end-all, at what cost does it come to be part of the rat race? Seek first the Kingdom—seek first the acquisition and practice of virtue and have no anxiety for temporal goods, trusting that God, in His providence, will provide whatever He sees fit. For God’s providence never fails the faithful!