Occasionally Matthew Stevens sends in a reflection to share. Often they have been about the contemporary faith landscape in Canada. Today’s is a biblical reflection …
From time-to-time I’ve mused upon the appropriateness of Jesus being allegedly born into the family of a wood-worker. Strictly speaking I suppose divine conceptual intervention might have occurred within any socio-professional grouping, ranging from customs inspectors, through mercantile entrepreneurs, to temple banking bureaucrats.
But, according to the gospel record that’s not how it happened, and I have to believe that the choice of a carpenter was no accident. Coaxing some sort of utilitarian function out of an ordinary piece of wood is an activity uniquely given to profound reflection and personal introspection. All the more so since first century craftsmen were not supplied with standardized cuts of precision measured and graded lumber.
Indeed carpenters of that era were generally required to fashioning useful furniture, fixtures, and household utensils out of raw material more akin in quality to driftwood. In an arid region such as Palestine the supply of wood would be extremely scarce and undoubtedly expensive, meaning that very little or nothing wold be wasted. Finding the item latently residing within each piece of wood was essential.
So, let’s picture the young Jesus working along side his father, slowly learning to master the requisite skills of carpentry. Luke’s gospel specifically notes a lengthy sojourn for the family in Egypt after Jesus’ birth, and since carpentry was practised as an inerrant trade that seems appropriate. Engaged on massive building sites such as those in upper (southern) Egypt, carpenters would perform a variety of additional functions, even including the cutting and fitting stone.
Perhaps as the family routinely moved from one job site to another the young Jesus learned some valuable lessons about the peripatetic life-style. As PK’s (preacher’s kids) my own children grew used to relocating every four or five years, and resultantly developed hardy and enduring bonds with their siblings. The long years of routine relocation undoubtedly taught Jesus how to land on his feet, and quickly develop linkages in new circumstances. I suppose Jesus might resonate with a comment from one of my own sons: “With each move I have a chance to re-imagine myself”.
A some stage Joseph made the decision to settle in one place. Who knows the reason? Perhaps a sudden and unanticipated housing boom in the greater Nazareth region; maybe it was expansion by the Romans that created opportunities for military contractors; or it might have been that Mary had simply had enough of the incessant wandering without putting down roots. We’ll never know how large or how busy Joseph’s carpentry shop might have been, but it was clearly prosperous enough for Jesus to gain some education in a local shule. Life may have been far from affluent, but for Mary the stability of a supportive community would have been welcomed.
The essential skills of the carpentry trade would have been conducive to someone with a personality such as Jesus. Reliant sole upon the limited range of basic hand-tools, the act of forming a utilitarian item from a rough piece of wood is tantamount to engaging in a dialogue. Without the aid of our plethora of power-tools, a carpenter can not force the raw stock to yield to excessive demands. One must craft with the woodgrain, patiently drawing from the piece whatever item is latently contained within. Are these not the same talents we subsequently witness in Jesus’ ministry?
In a very real sense the experience of Joseph and Mary was not unlike the thousands of more contemporary families that flocked to North American cities. They brought with them hard won talents, slowly refined over many generations in their homelands. They moved from place to place plying their trades, all the while insisting that their children receive the best educations they could
afford to provide. They wanted something more for their children, but also carefully ensured that they learned those same skills. Frequently this learning occurred by working right along side their parents,
None of the Gospel narrators thought to record Joseph’s opinion of his eldest son. In not one Biblical passage does Joseph declare with pride, “That’s my boy!” We know that Jesus’ precocious adolescent behaviour caused his parents no small amount of anxiety on at least one occasion while visiting Jerusalem. But, beyond that single incident we’re told only that he “… grew in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and all the people”.
Some Christian legend holds that Joseph died while Jesus was still a youth, so pure economic necessity might have dictated that Jesus take over his father’s carpentry business. We’ve no idea how successful a craftsman Jesus might have been, but this may explain why he waited so late in life to commence his ministry.
Living on the shore of Galilee, could it be that in pursuing his trade Jesus was peripherally drawn into some boat building and repair. Isn’t possible that while completing some work for a prominent local fishing-fleet owner by the name of Jonah, Jesus also first met his sons Simon and Andrew. In the course of any incipiently developing friendship Jesus would have had a perfect first- hand opportunity to learn something about the fishing trade, and acquire those metaphors that so frequently feature in his preaching.
Once Jesus’ ministry had begun in earnest and he was visiting his hometown, Mark tell us that Mary and his siblings were so concerned by his behaviour that “… they went to take charge of him, for they said, He is out of his mind.” Obviously motherly love continued to kept Mary close to Jesus right up his final moments. But, apart from these very seminal events in his life, there are great and significant information gaps. The simple truth is that we really know very little about this person so many of us claim to follow!
Still, I personally feel that I understand and apprehend the spirit of Jesus best whenever I find myself engaged in working with a piece of wood. Clean shavings curling from the plane, the persistent incisiveness of the chisel, or the smoothing strokes of hand sanding, all of these activities lead one into profound contemplation and communion with Jesus. Appreciating what rests within the rough wood, and then patiently working to free that latency from its present entrapment, provides the perfect basis for coming to fully understand and internalize Jesus’ teachings.