We have been told repeatedly that Joseph was a poor man. In fact, except for his marriage to Mary, that’s probably the one thing that we all swear as fact. Quotes about his poverty abound, and yet, maybe like so many other things we have assumed about him may not be as accurate as we think.
Before we go further, Joseph was not rich. Period. That much is true. But to understand Joseph’s status, we need to look a bit at the socio-economic classes that existed at his time.
Traditionally, we say that society was divided into the rich and the poor. There was nothing like our “middle class.” The rich included royalty, rulers, and others that we might call the “elite.” They were wealthy by the standards of the day and by our standards as well. Everyone else was “poor.” However, within that broad category of “poor,” there were levels. The beggars at the gates, the fishermen, the tax collectors, and artisans like Joseph are all lumped together as “the poor.” Yet, when we think about it, we clearly can discern that someone clad in rags and begging for scraps isn’t in the same position as a tax collector who owns a home. The ten lepers and Lazarus of Bethany do not hold the same social status. Peter is not the same economically as the man at the pool of Siloam. Yet they are all considered “poor” by a rich/poor division.
It is probably more accurate to say that Joseph was “average.” He wasn’t rich, but he wasn’t impoverished. He was just a regular, normal villager. His family might have had some hard times when work was scarce, but they weren’t starving, and they weren’t beggars. They were just like everyone else in Nazareth—average people.
Why is this important? Why should we think of the Holy Family as average rather than poor? It comes back to Joseph. To say that Joseph was poverty-stricken is an insult, not just to him, but to God. It begins with believing, as we do, that God chose Joseph to be the husband of Mary and the earthly father of Jesus. If Joseph couldn’t provide a standard living for his family, he would have been a terrible choice because either he was incompetent at his job or lazy or extremely unlucky. In any case, he would not be someone to respect. The whole point of the Incarnation was to show that Jesus was one of us, not part of the elevated high class, but not a beggar either. For the sake of salvation, Joseph needed to be a typical worker who could provide for his family—not to live in luxury but not to be destitute either.
We need to see the Holy Family as our neighbors, doing all the everyday things a family would do, not as a pathetic little group on the outskirts of society doing their best to stay alive, for it is in that image we see the real Joseph.
“Truly, I doubt not that the angels, wondering and adoring, came thronging in countless multitudes to that poor workshop to admire the humility of him who guarded that dear and divine child, and labored at his carpenter’s trade to support the son and the mother who were committed to his care.”
–Saint Francis de Sales
Dear Saint Joseph, may we recognize the inherent blessings that come with being “ordinary.” Amen.