Reflection Rev Ray Vincent
‘Lessons from Joseph – an Easy One and a Harder One’
Reading: Genesis 37:1-11
That reading is the beginning of a familiar story. Most of us heard it in Sunday School or day school. Today it’s probably better known through the musical Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. One of my little claims to fame is that I have actually performed in that musical on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall! When I was a minister in Leytonstone, our URC Synod Moderator had a bright idea for a Synod Day. She booked the Royal Festival Hall for a day, planned a range of activities in some of the rooms, and persuaded people from all the churches to prepare for a performance of Joseph. We rehearsed the songs in our own churches, then gathered together in larger clusters and eventually all in one place. The acting parts were given to talented young people in the churches, and I was one of the 200 voices in the choir. It was a particularly memorable occasion for me, because it happened to be on my 60th birthday.
So, it’s a familiar story. But it’s a very long story. I once had the idea of reading the whole of it from the Bible in place of a sermon, but I discovered it was not only longer than a normal sermon, but too long for the whole hour’s service! I’m sure this means that none of us can remember every detail of it. Joseph’s dreams, and the tricks he played on his brothers, are very complicated. Basically, it’s the story of a young man who went through some terrible experiences, but kept his integrity, did his work conscientiously, was rewarded for it, and in the end forgave those who had wronged him.
It’s a classic story, very well told. Generations of Jewish children no doubt heard it from their parents and teachers, just as Jewish and Christian children do today. In fact, Muslim children hear it too, because it is told in the Qur’an at great length with some details not mentioned in the Bible. It’s a story that grew and grew. It also has a moral. For Jewish people, it was particularly relevant in their years of exile, captivity and persecution. It was an assurance that whatever bad things happen to you, you can keep your faith and quietly witness to it in the way you behave, and God will bless you for it.
But the story has a bigger context than that. It is part of the story of the ancestors of the Jewish people, the patriarchs. Joseph was the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. And what a family that was! We usually think of them as great heroes of faith, but when you look a bit closer at them what you see is a classic example of what we would call today a “dysfunctional” family.
Abraham and Sarah, the great-grandparents, were an elderly childless couple, but Abraham slept with Sarah’s maid, Hagar, and she became pregnant. She then gloated a bit over Sarah, and Sarah resented it. Later Sarah herself had a child, and when she saw the two boys playing together, that was the last straw. She said ‘I don’t want that woman and her child under my roof a moment longer!’, and Abraham gave in to her and threw them out. The story goes on to say that Hagar’s son became ‘a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him’. In other words, as a child of a homeless single parent he rather predictably turned out to be a delinquent.
Sarah’s son Isaac seems to have been quite respectable, but there was a problem in that family with favouritism. He and his wife Rebekah had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Isaac’s favourite was Esau, a hunter, a real he-man with a hairy chest, but Rebekah favoured Jacob, a home-bird, a smooth man, a bit of a softie, but very crafty. In fact, he turned out to be a real rogue. When Isaac was old and not expecting to live much longer, he asked Esau to go and hunt for some game so that he could have a good meal and give Esau his final blessing as the elder son. But Rebekah plotted with Jacob to play a trick. Isaac by this time was blind, so while Esau was out hunting Rebekah cooked a meal and Jacob disguised himself as Esau to get his father’s blessing. This caused a huge quarrel, Esau threatened to kill Jacob, so he left home and didn’t come back for fourteen years.
Jacob worked with his uncle Laban who had two daughters. He fell in love with the younger daughter Rachel, but Laban tricked him into marrying Leah, the older daughter, so he did. But then he married Rachel too. He and Laban then went on to play all kinds of tricks on one another, but Jacob won, and managed to rob Laban of most of his property. Eventually Jacob had twelve 12 sons and a daughter by four different women. That’s an example of the ‘biblical pattern of family life’ that’s not quoted very often!
Jacob had a special affection for his son Joseph. He was the child of his second wife Rachel, the real love of his life. So he spoiled him rotten. Instead of working like the others, Joseph stayed at home wearing a beautiful robe his father had made for him. It is usually called a ‘coat of many colours’, but in fact the word is translated in different ways because it is a rare word and no-one quite understands it. The only other appearance of it in the Hebrew Scriptures (2 Samuel 13:18) is when it is worn by David’s daughter because it was the usual dress of the virgin daughter of a king – so there may have been something a bit effeminate about Joseph too, which his father encouraged. Joseph was also a bit of a sneak – he had a habit of telling tales about his brothers – and he had big ideas about himself, not hesitating to tell the whole family about his dreams of them all bowing down to him.
So it was no wonder that his brothers hated him. When they had the chance, they kidnapped him, sold him into slavery, tore up his special robe and dipped it in blood so that Jacob would think he had been killed by a wild animal. So, Jacob, who had once played a cruel trick on his own father, had an even more cruel trick played on him by his sons.
So, there we have it – family problems through four generations. Today it would have kept the social workers busy for life! It was worse than Eastenders!
We weren’t told many of these stories in Sunday School, certainly not the full uncensored version! But it’s all in the Bible. Most nations tell just the good stories about their heroic ancestors, but the Jews told it as it was, warts and all. The Bible doesn’t portray a squeaky-clean world in which everybody is nice. It shows God working in the real world with real people. In fact, it seems to suggest that God, like many parents, even has a soft spot for his naughtiest children!
My work in the University Chaplaincy has brought me in touch with a kind of ministry different from that of the traditional churches and more challenging. The University is of course a secular body with people of all faiths and none, and the Chaplaincy is there for all of them. Even many of the local British students come from families that have had nothing to do with church or chapel for a few generations. They know the Chaplaincy is there to support them when they are in difficulties or trouble, but somehow, they don’t associate it with church or chapel. The result is that the Chaplains meet them as they are, with all their problems. People freely confide in us about horrendous family situations, broken homes, trouble with the law, drink, drugs, sexual abuse and violence – all in full detail and needing to be dealt with. Most of the serious problems come to Vaughan, and he sometimes says he gets more trouble in one week than most ministers see in their whole lifetime. This is real life, and dealing with it is what Christian ministry is all about.
In the churches we have got into the habit of living in a little cosy circle of good, respectable people with the ‘right’ kind of family life. But, being honest, how many of us can look back on our family and not find a skeleton in the cupboard somewhere? But we don’t talk about it, especially in church. Is it any wonder that many people with some sort of irregularity in their lives won’t come near the church because they assume it will condemn them?
Of course faithfulness, respect and self-discipline are good things, but we all make mistakes, and the gospel, the good news we have to tell, is that God knows us all as we are, that he is with us whatever happens, that he doesn’t give up on anybody, and that no matter how messy a life is, he can make something of it. God can even work out his good purposes through the worst that human beings can do. As Joseph says to his brothers at the end of the story, it was through the terrible way they treated him that he was eventually in a position to save their lives and ensure that the family survived to fulfil God’s promise that they would become a great nation.
God works out his best purposes by taking the worst human beings can do and turning it to good. Surely that is the meaning of the Cross that is at the heart of our Christian faith.
There is another story about Jacob’s family that we certainly didn’t hear in Sunday School. It’s actually an interruption in the middle of the story of Joseph. If you want all the sordid details, read Genesis 38. The gist of it is that one of the other brothers, Judah, had sex with his son’s widow and have her twins. It seems incestuous, but it wasn’t really his fault – he didn’t recognize her because she was disguised as a prostitute! It was through those twins that the tribe of Judah got started, and Jesus was a direct descendant of one of them.
And the beauty of it is that the Bible doesn’t cover up this sordid history. The first chapter of Matthew – that one with the ‘begats’ that most people don’t bother to read – gives the genealogy of Jesus all the way down from Abraham. Like most genealogies it follows the male line, but in just a few cases it mentions the mother, and this is the first example: ‘and Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar’. The other examples are interesting too: Rahab the prostitute, Ruth the immigrant from Moab, Bathsheba with whom David committed adultery, and finally Mary, who was under suspicion because she was pregnant before she was married – all part of the family that produced Jesus the Saviour of the world. I’m sure Matthew is trying to tell us something there!
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Prayer – Pam Mahoney
Let us pray
Heavenly Father, whose very being brings us the essence of a loving, caring, supportive and nurturing relationship.
You alone can see into our hearts and understand our motivations our strengths and weaknesses.
We bring you our prayers for understanding, compassion and forgiveness.
Forgive us for the times when our own behaviours have caused hurt or we have been insensitive.
Be with families of all kinds as they struggle with the tensions and the demands of living and growing together as differing individuals within a group, celebrating with them the good times and supporting them in the bad.
Give strength and discernment to those who find relationships difficult, whose own needs, insecurities or lack of empathy prevent them from balanced participation in the give and take of relationships.
Let jealousy be recognised and dealt with so that it doesn’t become a barrier to family relationships and friendships.
Let it not be inevitable that those who have never received unconditional warmth and love from others – aren’t able to learn to be able to give it to others.
We can all learn from the example of your great love for us and our joy in sharing that love.
Help those whose need for approval outweighs their judgement of what is and is not acceptable when interacting with others and equally help those whose need to control others outweighs considerations of kindness and decency.
Be with those who feel unloved, lonely, Ignored, discriminated against and friendless, help us all to recognise, reading through layers and degrees of sociability where a friendly word, kind gesture or walking alongside someone can make a difference.
When we see injustice and imbalance in relationships help us to be compassionate and understanding.
There will rarely be perfection in human relationships, but there can be a firm foundation of trust, mutual respect and communication all based on the “extravagant love” we experience from you which brings out the best in everyone.
WE pray for those who have been and are still being affected by Covid 19, for those dealing with the loss of loved ones and for those struggling with lengthy rehabilitation, for those still having to isolate and those struggling with the desire to grasp some form of normality whilst at the same time fearing another wave of the disease
We pray for all those whose livelihoods have been affected, whose jobs may be at risk, for their anxiety and fear for their future.
We pray for people in other parts of the world affected by the virus, especially those living in poverty with no hope of isolation or medical aid.
WE give thanks for all the ordinary people doing extraordinary things, many of whom are amongst the lowest paid in our society and we pray also for the health workers, risking their lives to care for others.
We pray for those in Beirut dealing with the shock, horror and aftermath of a horrific explosion as they come to terms with its causes and wider effects.
WE remember people in areas of conflict all over the world, people who just want to go about their everyday lives and caught up, through no fault of their own, in wars and divisions in their lands, whose regular suffering often gets obscured by the latest sensational headline.
We pray for wisdom and good judgement amongst decision makers everywhere who bear a tremendous responsibility for the quality of life of this and future generations.
And we pray for our ourselves, for those among our congregation who have bravely dealt with unusual circumstances, giving thanks for those who have sustained each other in a variety of creative ways whilst missing the special fellowship of shared worship. We give thanks for our minister and those who lead our worship who have shared their ideas and stimulated us, keeping our spirits up and our Faith strong.
We especially pray for those who are dealing with poor health and changes in their circumstances which bring them new challenges in these difficult times and their loneliness and frustration as they are required to be shielded
We thank you that we are all, no matter how imperfect, wrapped in your limitless and comforting cwtch.