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Saint Joseph, the Timeless Model of a Father and Husband: A Reflection on Responsibility

Introduction

In the hill country of Bethlehem in Judea, there was a man called Joseph. He descended from the line of King David, hence, he was royal, a carpenter by profession and also good Jew[1]. Joseph led quite a decent life and enjoyed a good reputation among his countrymen. Scandal, therefore, would easily threaten all that, affecting him, his family and even jeopardize his trade. Joseph got engaged to a young woman called of Mary[2], a beautiful soul who embodied the virtues of a Jewish bride. Expectant of a great future ahead with Joseph, Mary equally dreaded scandal. In addition, her culture was hash on sexual immorality among women. Death by stoning and disowning by family, among other penalties, followed women accused of such[3].

Needless to repeat the story, the unexpected (a miracle) happened. She conceived a child before the two were united in Holy Matrimony. Historical or religious accounts of the origins of her pregnancy are beyond human understanding, hence, a mystery. Both Mary and Joseph had choices. Mary accepted the child. Joseph accepted both the child and the mother. This very notion of choice is central to this reflection on responsibility. Even if we choose to ignore the glorious narrative of religious experiences that provides context to their choices, the story of Mary and Joseph qualifies timelessly as a model of good personal and social ethics. It provides a strong basis for the notion of human freedoms, rights, and their limits[4]. This paper discusses the problem of freedom of choice, and autonomy and implications of choice on responsibility to spouses, family, and the society.

Background

The world continues to witness a decline in religious faith, especially its practice, and deterioration of social ethics. Broken homes, single parenthood, abortions, and unhappy marriages are among phenomena that result from this anomaly. Confirming our commitment to core human values such as life and the dignity of the human person is a tall order. Pluralism and exaggerated emphases on freedom of choice challenge our capacity to transcend current social trends “globalization of superficiality.”[5] Advances in life, social and natural sciences and technology add to the perceived expansion of human freedom. From a true humanism we descended to individualism and, further still, into mediocrity.

The indifference and value neutrality of our societies testifies to what Nietzsche termed “the death of God.”[6] We laugh and make fun of “the saints,” both living and dead, call the faithful ones “naive,” mocking morality as if it is weakness. Rather, we should introspect and consider what governs our lives and informs our choices. It could be that we care more about saving our public face, our reputations, and their expediency. The instrumentality of values weighs more than their intrinsic worth to society and, thus, we miss opportunities to make choices that build authentic free societies.

Our mission to build these true societies, as the immoralist advises, demands that we flee from the market place, “for fly flapping is not thy lot”.[7] Moral space is not a market place where truth is acclaimed by popular opinion. Rather, it is a realm where freedom of conscience and discernment must reign. Therefore, reflecting on the story of Joseph and Mary helps us to reimagine marriage, family, and society. We can again rebuild these important institutions on a strong, solid foundation of faith and love of the good life.

Discernment is at the Center of Making a Good Choice

When the messenger (the Angel Gabriel) announced the coming of a child, in-spite of her inadequacy both age-wise (approximately 15 years) and socio-economic standing, the young and poor Mary gladly accepted the responsibility of bringing the child into the world. She had kept herself pure and received good training from her parents but, on this occasion, she looked beyond her pure self and family’s good moral background to consent to the unfolding “scandal”.

Joseph her fiancée had an even a equally tough choice to make. Accepting pregnant Mary and the child was not a simple decision. Even in his struggle with the news of Mary’s pregnancy, without a preceding cause, he intended to dismiss her in a manner that would preserve her dignity[8]. Discernment led him not only to accepting the situation, but full responsibility as husband to Mary and father to the child, Jesus. Mary and Joseph became husband and wife, father and mother to Jesus, a Holy Family by a leap of faith that transformed the “scandal” into a practical model of the Joy of Love.[9] Theirs is a model of responsibility on which, today more than 2000 years later, we are called to reflect on and imitate by Mother Church and universally uphold as parties to the whole body of Human Right Law[10].

The Internal Struggle Caused by External Factors

When news of a child reaches one’s ears, the single person, a young man or young woman, is gripped with fear and angst[11]. The world appears to collapse, to curve in and to shrink one’s existence. Fear grips the individual and throws her before a jury that presents before her arguments and evidence of all that could go wrong. In moments of confusion, it is not easy to think of what could go right, the positive. Those are the tactics of the evil one according to Ignatius of Loyola. Among the panelists on this jury sits the economy, religion, society (family and friends), and the ego (the selfish self with all her perfect plans and public reputation). Guilty on all counts, often points the verdict, condemning one to life in prison except that, the real authoritative jurisdiction is confined to one’s conscience. This trial can only be concluded by the personal choice, the decision of the accused, the very individual concerned. “We are condemned to free” (Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness).

A young woman is confronted by what society will think and say, how she will suffer or struggle through pregnancy, the pain of childbirth/delivery and even more, the means by which to raise a baby in a hash economy. She also considers how it will disrupt all her plans such as her career; she is overwhelmed and to such a one, the practical thing to do, appears, to be undergo an abortion. Just get rid of it (kill the baby) and continue with life as if nothing happened. Defer motherhood, as if that is even a thing. Her other option is to accept the baby and take responsibility of everything that comes along with that choice. This choice demands courage “… to dare the audacity of the improbable, and the evangelical willingness to do it, with the humility of those who know that, in this enterprise where the human person engages all [her] energy, everything depends on God.”[12] That what parenthood is, a bold acceptance of responsibility to both children and spouse.

For the young man, the same goes except that the options appear wider. One involves rejecting the child while accepting his girlfriend, thus an abortion would do. The second choice would be to reject both the woman and the child in her womb and get on with life, the so called “hit and run” approach that has exacerbated the single mothers’ phenomenon in our communities today. Many who have taken this path have lived to comment back on that moment as the famous “young and stupid” or “moment of madness” episode. This is inevitable when one is confronted by their later, mature and refined version, or by the thought, memory or sight of their ex-girlfriend, or the life/face of the grown up child; a real, existing and living human being. The third option, the Joseph approach, demands depth which is an attribute of a well-formed moral agent and discerning personality. Let’s take a moment and reflect on the person of Joseph.

Parents are not just birth-givers, but most importantly care-givers

Confronted by the news of his fiancée Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, Joseph from his good conscience resolved to dismiss her in the most dignified way possible. He knew what the Jewish law provides as response to the obtaining situation, that is, dealing with an unfaithful woman. However, through discernment, that internal conversation with a Being, a voice within but beyond one’s human condition, a conversation that transcends social or religious moral constructs; in the form of a vision or dream according to scripture, Joseph came to accept both Mary as his wife and the child Jesus she carried as his son. He accepted not only the mere position of father, a male figure governing the family, but the mission of taking full responsibility of and providing for that family.

This responsible behavior in our time is necessitated and provided for by the term duty bearer in according to the human rights legal-rational authority framework. Social roles or titles that have strong resemblance to the duties and responsibilities they carry provide for an effective system of accountability, noteworthy, of individuals in both word and deed, those persons, and institutions they are involved or associated with. God, self, and community/society form an important support structure for promoting and defending social institutions such as family and marriage in which basic human rights are enjoyed and fulfilled. That is the complementarity between genetic parenthood and social parenthood, nature, and nurture. Parents are not just birth givers but, most importantly, care givers.

Beyond Choice, the Action of Responsible Parenting: Duty and Identity

Being a father carries with it the duty to protect, promote and fulfill the rights of a child, read Section 81 of the constitution of Zimbabwe (CoZ) on the rights of children. It affirms that every child has “… the right to be given a name and a family name” (CoZ 81.1.a). One may ask, why did Matthew the evangelist take pains to dedicate a whole chapter to the genealogy of Jesus (Mt 1:1). Just as it was important for him to demonstrate that Jesus was of royal descent and solid Jewish background prior to presenting Message to his Jewish audience, so is it important for a child to interact with the rest of society with an unmistaken identity even in our time. By accepting a child and bestowing on her a positive identity, parents bequeath on their children a “social apparatus”[13] of immense value. It is a shame even among the Shona people to deny a child an identity for wherever she goes, the family name precedes and paves a way. The question “mwana waani uyo?”, whose child is that? is common whenever a child does something that catches the eye of the public, whether good or bad. Thus, parents should take pride in according their children their family’s identity. One day a proud father or mother will rise up in the midst of all witnesses and acclaim, “mwana wangu iyeye!” that my child! and so, children look up to their parents without shame for identity is a source of pride.

Just Be There

Every relationship is built upon sharing benefits and burdens. Some of these burdens include providing for a family parental and appropriate care, protection from economic and sexual exploitation among other abuses, an education, healthcare, nutrition and shelter[14]. The parent must also defend the child from political compulsion and all forms of harm and seek her best interest in all matters. Joseph accompanied his wife Mary during her pregnancy to the moment of their son’s birth in a manger[15]. The importance of accompanying a loved one during difficult moments, especially expecting mothers, cannot be understated. Pregnancy is a period during which a woman has extra needs both emotional and physical. She is not just herself, hence, not quite herself. Just being there for her makes a huge difference. The Gospel account of the labor hours of Mary demonstrates the struggle any couple undergoes to bring a child into the world. Joseph’s presence is one aspect which all men who desire to be fathers should imitate. No matter the circumstances, “Just be there!”[16] Even the Lord was born in a manger to testify that, life is basic and so ordinary. So, please! do not complicate life.

Parents are the Primary Educators of Their Children

When they returned to Israel, now in Nazareth, Jesus learnt carpentry his father’s trade and was raised according to the Jewish customs[17]. The formation of a child into a good, responsible citizen is the direct responsibility of parents. A child learns, primarily, by imitation than by other means such as dictation. For this reason the family constitutes the first and most crucial element of an education system of a society. It is the family that promotes and nurtures the potential of an individual by availing the “educational apparatus” [18] that enables the natural gifts of a child to blossom. Therefore, being a parent also demands active participation in the intellectual life, physical growth and general development of a child.[19]

One could also argue that Jesus was Joseph’s adopted son under the circumstances of His conception. What stands out, regardless, is that every child deserves a family, a “social apparatus” by which its fundamental rights to an identity, education and protection from exploitation can be effectively guaranteed. Men and women are obliged to act responsibly to provide their off springs the conducive environment we call family and, in some cases however imperfect, to constitute basic family structures for the furtherance of child development. While we debate about the existence of God, and couples debate the paternity of children, love, respect, and integrity should move responsible persons to do the right thing, accept children and women. To err is human, but “life will [always] outdo itself”[20]; it strives to manifest its goodness and thrives regardless.

Leaders are Role Models not Just some Functionaries

It is common practice, when considering the appointment of an individual to public office, to assess his faithfulness in other lesser demanding responsibilities. Being head of a family or any other smaller collective of individuals are among the examples. A man who runs his family affairs well wins the hearts of the larger society which ought to be good enough a motivation for young men to take up commitments such as marriage and family. The current generation has taken the fight for the rights of women to a higher level demanding not just mere recognition but fulfillment of women’s liberties in all spheres of civilized society and in the Church. Bring the returns of these achievements to every home and create healthier families.

Our Women (mothers, wives, and daughters) Deserve More

The Constitution of Zimbabwe affirms that “every woman has full and equal dignity of the person with men and this includes equal opportunity in political, economic and social activity”[21]. In addition, “all laws, customs, traditions and cultural practices that infringe the rights of women conferred by this Constitution of Zimbabwe are void to the extent of the infringement.”[22]  Joseph was a man ahead of his time and his son Jesus took after him[23]. When he received the news that Mary was with Child while they were engaged but not yet involved sexually, he was as confused and furious as any young man would be today. He not only understood the ways of society in dealing with scandal but, most importantly, respected Mary and loved her well enough to give her the benefit of doubt which accorded him the courage to eventually do more (magis) of accepting both the woman and the child and founding a family with them.

A real man would go out of his way against all odds to secure a good reputation, good social image, and dignity for his loved one. Women take pride in being in a commitment such as marriage and having a family. They also take pride in contributing meaningfully to their families which is why it is paramount to allow girls and women to pursue their careers and fully participate in social life within and without institutions like the Church and government. Ask madzimai enzanga, women in church guilds, and they will testify to this claim. It was, therefore, crucial that Joseph accepts Mary and her son for her to fully enjoy the rights of a Jewish woman according to her space and time.

The statement, “…to the extent of the infringement”[24] attests to the fact that even secular law does not overrule certain customs, traditions and practices which makes it important for every man willing to secure his wife’s dignity in society to satisfy to his best ability the requirements of tradition and culture such as paying lobola (dowry), even just tsvakirai kuno, a simple gesture, a show of respect and goodwill, a symbolic notification of acceptance of a spouse. There are many ways of establishing relations between two families, that of a man and of a woman, provided by different cultures and religious traditions. To the extent that they do not infringe on the basic rights of young couples to found a family, it is the responsibility of all relevant persons to facilitate the processes of incorporating new families into the life of the society. “Time is greater than space” according Pope Francis (read Lumen Fidei, Evangeli Gaudium, Amoris Laetictia, Laudato Si).

Conclusion

Freedom without responsibility is an illusion. If one desires a good, one ought also to pay the price. The reflection on responsibility demonstrates the importance of discernment and boldness of action in building not only family but whole societies. Respect of life and dignity of human persons are fundamental to this task. Women and children as members of special vulnerable groups, deserve more protection from men, the Church, and the State. Therefore, more attention needs be paid to the laws and formation programmes of our young men and women to solidify the foundations of our societies on the principles of freedom (right and liberties) and responsibility. Love ought to rule above fear when we made choices as individuals and leaders of communities.

Sources

[1] Matthew 1, the Genealogy of Jesus

[2] Matthew 2, Mary was betrothed to Joseph

[3] Woman caught in the act,

[4] Moyn Samuel: Christianity and Human Right

[5] Adolf Nicolas, SJ: Globalization of superficiality, conversation with European Jesuit Fathers 2015

[6] Nietzsche Friedrich: Prologue to Thus Spake Zarathustra

[7] Nietzsche Friedrich: Thus Spake Zarathustra: Flies in the Market Place, Chapter 12, Part 1

[8] Matthew 1

[9] Pope Francis Papal Encyclical: Amoris Laticia, 2016

[10] The Universal Declaration of Human Right of 1948 and corollary International Conventions/ Covenants

[11] Sartre Jean Paul: Being and Nothingness

[12] Cadoré Bruno: Homily of the opening Mass of General Congregation 36 of the Society of Jesus

[13] Chamba Tawanda: Apparatus, unpublished (pending)

[14] Constitution of Zimbabwe Section 81 d-i

[15] Matthew 2

[16] Nathan Miti, SJ: Verbal Lectures to Jesuit Novices, 2010-11

[17] Matthew 3: The Holy Family back in Israel, Nazareth

[18] Chamba Tawanda: Apparatus unpublished 

[19] See Gardener’s Nine types of Intelligence

[20] Taruwona Frank: Oral Defense of B.A. Honors Dissertation (UZ), at Arrupe College 2015

[21] Constitution of Zimbabwe: Bill of Rights, Section 80 Paragraph 1

[22]  Constitution of Zimbabwe: Section 80 Paragraph 3

[23] Jesus and the woman caught in the act facing death by stoning

[24] Constitution of Zimbabwe: Bill of Rights, part three

[25] Nietzsche Friedrich: Thus Spake Zarathustra, Part 1 Chapter 10: War and Warriors

The Common Priest

Tawanda Chamba is a freelance writer, independent researcher, and commoner. The is a father of one and husband on one.

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