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Minor Characters: Joseph of Arimathea
Every story matters
The more I learn about novel writing, the more I consider it to be a herculean task. In my creative writing program, I’ve been required to write scenes and short stories in the fiction genre, and frankly, that effort alone makes novel writing seem like a sort of superpower. With novels, there are subplots, a multitude of characters to develop, and the need to invent myriad ways to keep the protagonist in trouble, all of which must be woven together in a coherent narrative. I marvel at the skill of novel writers as they wrangle all the moving parts into a whole. And because I love character-driven writing, I’m intrigued by the way authors use minor characters to enhance plot.
The whole implication of the word minor is that it’s insignificant, right? We are supposed to overlook minor details. If you play for the minors, you don’t get paid the big bucks or have your face splashed across a Wheaties box. A minor degree won’t land you a job. You probably won’t even evoke sympathy from your loved ones over minor problems. I looked up the definition of minor for the sake of this post: “inferior in importance, size, or degree: comparatively unimportant” says Merriam-Webster. Yep, insignificant.
The definition seems appropriate when it comes to minor characters, too; we know instinctively that they aren’t in stories to capture our attention. They just enrich the narrative and propel the plot of the protagonist along. They are, as the dictionary states, comparatively unimportant.
This whole minor character thing became especially relevant to me recently while reading the biblical Book of Mark. Mark 15 puts its readers right in the middle of the Passion story and by its end, Jesus is betrayed by Judas, endures a humiliating trial before the Jewish leaders, and is sent to Pilate, who cowardly bows to the masses and sends Him to the cross. Within the meta-narrative of the Bible, the story of the death and resurrection of Christ is the climax, and there are many minor characters that play a part. But on this last readthrough, one character stood out to me: Joseph of Arimathea.
If you don’t know the story, Joseph was a wealthy man who was also a Jewish council member. He was a man of importance and was in the room when the influencers of the day decided Jesus should be put to death. However, as a secret disciple of Jesus, he was not among those who consented.
After the death of Jesus, Scripture tells us Joseph of Arimathea “took courage” and went to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. Pilate assented, so Joseph bought a linen cloth “and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock” (ESV. Mark 15:46).
I had never considered this action of Joseph’s with much depth before, but this time around, I was struck by such an exquisite act of love. Joseph went to Pilate in secret, but the risk of being discovered was evident. Why else the mention of courage? His decision was both bold and sacrificial. In my imagination, I see Joseph taking down the mangled body of Jesus, lovingly wrapping Him in linen, and gently laying Him in his own tomb; the entire scene is poignantly beautiful.
As I reflected on the passage, I remembered Joseph’s status as a minor character. By definition, he was simply there to propel the plot of Jesus’ death and resurrection along, helping the protagonist get from the cross to the tomb. Jesus is the central figure, and Joseph is of inferior importance. In prior readings of this story, that’s precisely how I saw him.
But do you know something? God saw fit to include Joseph in all four gospels. What’s more, Scripture could have simply told us a secret disciple came and laid Jesus in a tomb. But it seems God thought it important to include Joseph’s name and the specific details of his actions. Why? Because the life of Joseph of Arimathea mattered to God. God saw Joseph’s act of love and honored him in His story.
Throughout Scripture, we witness God take interest in and highlight the stories of minor characters. From seeing Hagar in the wilderness to priests who are called to instruct kings, to a tax collector in a tree, or the praising of a widow and her mite, God weaves the actions of people and their stories into His own. And while He often reveals people’s individual weaknesses as instruction for ours, He also illuminates their small but significant acts of love. Minor characters matter to God. God’s love for mankind demonstrated on the cross reveals that every character in His story has meaning and importance.
I tend, as I imagine we all do, to think of myself as the protagonist of my own story. And while that may be true to some extent, the reality is that I, too, am simply a minor character in the grand narrative of human history. Jesus is and will always be the main character; He is the hero, and I am here to propel His story along. Like Joseph of Arimathea, my part to play may only be a paragraph, or even a sentence or two, but even so, I matter greatly to God. He knows my name. He knows my story. And what I do for him or with him or because of him, He will honor (John 12:26).
The same goes for you, reader. No matter who you are or where you are, God sees you. Perhaps your life seems unimpressive when compared to another’s, but make no mistake, it is precious to Him. Your very existence means God has woven you into His story. The world may look at the minors of life and find them insignificant, but not so with God. He is the ultimate Author, and in His tale, no action or detail is missed, no character unimportant.
Your story matters.