Part of why we work so hard for kids to have good role models is because the set the possibility space. You’re much more likely to go to college if you know other folks who’d already went. It’s easier to become an astronaut if you know one. The same goes for working hard, staying in shape, avoiding temptations. If you know someone who has risen above, you can know that it’s possible.

The Bible contains a multitude of role models for us. The lessons of Scripture take on many modes. There’s certainly direct instruction like the Law, the Prophets, or Paul’s letters. There’s poetry like in Psalms or Song of Songs. There’s visions of the future like in Daniel or Revelation. However, most of what we have are stories of people’s interactions with God. As humans, we need these tales of our fellow humans to make comprehensible for us our relationship with the divine. We can be told to stand up for what we believe in, but it helps for us to see Esther decide, “If I perish, I perish.” Paul tell us that the Gentiles belong too, but it helps for Luke to record in Acts that Paul baptized a jailer or that Peter baptized a Roman Centurion. We can hear endless about our need to choose God, but seeing Ruth tell her mother in law, “your God will be my God,” makes it much more tangible.

Still, if we are looking for outright role models, people to emulate, a lot of times, we are learning what no to do. David, the mighty king after God’s own heart, keeps doing things to land him in need of forgiveness. Father Abraham and his wife, Sarah, have a complicated relationship involving equally complicated relationships with servants and foreign rulers. Peter and the rest of the Disciples abandon Christ at his lowest point. Jacob steals the birthright from his brother. Queen Esther had to be talked into standing up, and Peter had to be talked into baptizing Gentiles. Noah, the great Ark builder, brings his own story to a sordid enough end that I won’t relate it here.

I’ve said in many places that I love how complicated the people of the Bible are. They’re recognizably human – not flat superheroes. We can see ourselves in their humanity, in the depths of their flaws and can then understand that we too can ascend to their heights of faith. I could say that a guy like me can’t lead a church, but Peter betrayed Christ. Paul got really into murdering Christians for a minute. Stephen made people so instantly mad that they stoned him immediately. Whatever I was before feels just par for the course.  

We do get a few true heroes, though, and two of them are named Joseph. The Old Testament one, of Technicolor Dream Coat fame, and the New Testament one, of nativity set fame both get a role in a story of salvation because of consistent faithfulness. After the coat of many colors and getting sold out by his brothers, we often lose track of Old Testament Joseph, but he rises to power in Egypt by listening to God – rather than rejecting God. He faces temptations and never falters. His faithfulness and success meant that when God’s people need an escape from famine, he could save them.

New Testament Joseph works on a far smaller scale but is no less remarkable. Why was Jesus born to a carpenter and not a king or a priest? Some of it may have to do with Joseph’s character. When he believes that Mary has cheated on him and became pregnant, he doesn’t seek vengeance, which would have been his legal right. Instead, he seeks simply to move on in such a way that allowed a future even for the one that he believed harmed him. He readily accepts the word of the Angel and becomes a loving adoptive father. He shows tremendous strength in moving his family to Egypt to protect his child’s life from the murderous Herod. He lives so many of the virtues that Scripture seeks to impart in us – forgiveness, gentleness, and faithfulness. He knows when to be loving and when to be strong. His life may look ordinary, but the way he lives it makes it so much more.

After some glimpses from Christ’s childhood, in Luke 2, Joseph fades entirely from the story. Mary continues on, journeying with Jesus and being a part of the early church. What happened to Joseph? Did someone need to run the shop, while everyone else travelled and evangelized? Did he pass away? The Bible doesn’t tell us, but from what we know of Joseph, whatever it was, he put himself exactly where God needed him.

Both Josephs form an important counter point to all our deeply flawed Biblical friends. Yes, God will love us in spite of flaws, will never give up on us, and can still use some deeply messed up individuals. This always bears repeating. Also, as John Wesley would gladly remind you, perfection is possible in this lifetime. God set the bar high but not impossibly high with the grace and power that God gives us along with the way. Neither Joseph did it on their own. God helped them. However, they did consistently live out their faith and God’s values as ordinary mortals. This is why they make excellent role models. They did what we all should do and, in doing so, showed us that it’s possible.