In honor of the Year of St. Joseph, philosophy professor Dr. John Cuddeback provided a special meditation for the latest issue of the college’s Instaurare magazine. Examining St. Joseph’s life through the lens of Joseph of Egypt and more, Cuddeback illuminates the importance of St. Joseph in today’s world, pointing to his dispositions and his actions as worthy examples to emulate in one’s household and beyond.
In this year of St. Joseph, I turn to God’s Word to meditate on the vocation of a husband and father.
“Who then is the faithful and wise steward, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time?” (Luke 12:42) Indeed, who is he? If I am a husband and father, then it seems that I am called to be he, for surely my household is really His household, and I have been set over it — whatever exactly that means!
The Church applies these Gospel words to St. Joseph. Therefore, it is fitting that I meditate on the life of St. Joseph to try to discover more about who he is, so I can better understand who I should be. To this end, I will go back to that Old Testament type of St. Joseph—the ‘other Joseph,’ Joseph of Egypt—to glean from his story insight into St. Joseph. I will take as a directive for me the words of pharaoh of Egypt, “Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do.” (Genesis 41:55)
“[A]nd he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had.” (Genesis 39:4)
Pharaoh’s steward Potiphar put Joseph over his house. Later, the pharaoh himself would do the same. “[Y]ou shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command.” (Genesis 41:40) There is something quite dramatic here. A man who has no special claim to it is given a great charge. He is put over a household, and then a nation, that is not really his—at least not as his own possession. Yet it becomes his, as a place that he serves, by the order of someone higher—someone who has an even deeper interest in the good of those people.
To be a man is to be a crafter of the good life, in oneself and others. A man wants to make something. Just what is the primary object of his making, of his crafting? For a husband and father, it is the real flourishing of his household—i.e., the persons in the community under his special care. The household is the real home of masculinity. Anything a man does in business or sports, for instance, is but a shadow of what he does here. The household is the most natural context where manhood is developed and honed precisely in and through a man’s discovering and exercising his place there.
And what is he to do there?
“You shall be over my house.” (Genesis 41:39) So says Pharaoh to Joseph, and so said God to St. Joseph. And amazingly, He says this to me. This is my calling, regardless of how strange it sounds, or how unprepared I find myself. Now is the time for me to step up. I am not “discreet and wise” (Ibid.) as were the two Josephs, but I must do my best.
“Lo, having me, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand.” (Genesis 39:8, Joseph to Potiphar’s wife)
“And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.” (Luke 2:51)
True authority is in God. That He deigns to exercise authority over His creatures is one of the most profound expressions of His love for us. That He deigns to share authority with His creatures—inviting them in various ways to have and also be under authority—is a further gift, one that is mysterious and multifaceted. Mine is the challenge to discover the reality of authority and its inseparable connection with my love for my wife and children.
I need to remember two things. First, authority is sometimes invested in those who are unworthy of it. Indeed, ultimately, only God is perfectly suited to the exercise of authority. The nature and ends of authority are not to be judged from the suitability or the performance of those invested with it. This is clear in scripture, history, and experience. Second, whether I or anyone else likes it or not, human authority is an absolutely essential means for the flourishing of human persons—especially in the most important contexts, such as the household.
Scripture repeatedly speaks of authority in terms of being “over” people. What am I to make of this? Am I really called to be “over” those closest to me? It is critical that I get this right; everything depends on it. I must distinguish between “over” as taskmaster and “over” as foreseeing guide and provider. “Over” can be a mode of love, bringing God’s love and care, according to His plan, to those I serve by my authority. Or it can be an exercise of selfishness rather than love, and force rather than real strength. And this distinction makes all the difference in life.
To recede or shy away from my authority will be to fail in love—to fail to receive the gift God intends for me, and more importantly, for my loved ones. “To give them their portion of food at the proper time.” (Luke 12:42) Clearly, this concerns much more than just bodily needs. My authority in the home is an instrument tuned to the key of true human flourishing in all of its richness. Authority brings right order, arranging things for the good of those “under” it, putting first things first. It takes many forms: instructing, directing, commanding, correcting, punishing, encouraging.
Perhaps the central challenge, especially today, is to discern how my wife and I have joint authority in the home, while at the same time I also have a first authority, even in relation to her. This is very mysterious and a common stumbling block. Words often fail in capturing this reality; people are offended and confused. This is understandable. Failures in the exercise of authority are often precisely what make us doubt, distrust, or even hate it.
We men have not done our part, and so the gift of our authority has been discredited and rejected.
And then there is St. Joseph, whom God put over the Holy Family. Over Mary. Over Jesus. And he loved, and he served them, by his authority. He must have wondered, “How can I be ‘over’ them?” But Mary needed a real man for a husband, and Jesus needed a real man for a father. And they would not be let down. Not on St. Joseph’s watch.
St. Joseph will be my patron. The man who says nothing in the New Testament has much to say to me. I will have to listen carefully. I need to meditate on his dispositions and his actions. There is more here than I have realized.
I will need to attend to directives from God the Father and listen for communications from angels. I will need to get up in the middle in the night—perhaps regularly—and sometimes I might need to wake up my wife and children too. I will need to lead them, sometimes to a place they know not; sometimes a place that I hardly know at all. But I must still take first responsibility.
The reality is that the world is often hostile to what we as a household are trying to do and to be. This is not new, even if it is newly virulent.
What is it about Egypt? Perhaps in certain kinds of adversity a man can learn what is most important. There, I might develop that other-centered-focus that is the flowering of masculinity. Joseph of Egypt labored there for long years, for some of which he was a slave or prisoner. St. Joseph was there in exile and poverty.
And their hearts were refined like gold. They learned to focus on God, and the vocation to serve others, in their specific call as men.
A couple of lines from scripture I will carry with me: First: “Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do.” St. Joseph is my God-given pattern and patron. His actions speak louder than words. Second: “They did not know that Joseph understood them.” (Genesis 42:23) This was when Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt and they spoke among themselves in his presence, thinking he couldn’t understand them. St. Joseph is a patron for all men in all circumstances. Our challenges are not foreign or unperceived by him, nor by God our Father. He understands.
Finally, scripture says that “the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake.” (Genesis 39:5) God, grant that I might be such a source of blessing to all in my house and beyond.
This story is featured in the latest issue of Instaurare Magazine. See more from Instaurare here!