The Tenth Sunday after Trinity
13th August 2023
in the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
I suppose it’s true that it is those who are closest to us who get the worst of us, and that it is the ones we love, or the ones who love us, that we hurt the most. As we have noted Sunday after Sunday, as remote as the conditions of life may be, these ancient stories from the book of Genesis are surprisingly useful in reflecting on the joys and sorrows of family life in any generation, including our own.
Once again, today’s Old Testament lesson is a great advertisement for monogamy: the difficulties between Joseph and his brothers have their roots in the Rachel and Leah story that we heard a couple of Sundays ago. Joseph is the son of Rachel, hence his favoured status. I’m sure most of us will have at least second-hand experience of favouritism within families and its destructive consequences; and I am sure we all realise that the more complicated the family structure, the greater the potential of this sort of problem. Jacob has twelve sons by four different women: his two wives and their two maids. It’s easy to see how that could go wrong!
And so although I don’t suppose any of us has had an experience quite like that of Joseph and his brothers, nevertheless we all know something about rivalries and jealousies between siblings turning nasty, and about parents who don’t recognise the consequences of their actions. We sympathise with Joseph, of course, but if we’re honest we probably sympathise with the brothers a little more, since Joseph does actually sound quite annoying: strutting around in his fancy robe, telling stories about his grandiose dreams, and snitching on his brothers to his Dad.
And it’s not only within families. The truth is that human beings for quite understandable reasons tend to dislike those who stand out, those who are different, those who take an alternate path from the one mapped out for them. I say for understandable reasons, because we are of course fundamentally social animals, and so most societies tend to reward behaviour that is socially-acceptable and conforming, to the extent that this instinct is very likely hard-wired into the human brain. Joseph stands out amongst his brothers, and so they decide to punish him for it, first planning to kill him, but finally settling on selling him into slavery.
When we read the gospels, if we’re honest it’s not hard for us to understand why Jesus wound up the Jewish religious leadership, and for that matter, His own townspeople and family. He had a place in the world, the Nazareth carpenter’s son. He could have just got on with that as doubtless the other good people of Nazareth got on with their occupations. No doubt there was social life in Nazareth as in any town, companions and friends, other men of His age and background who He could mingle with. But Jesus turns out to be one of those awkward individuals, much like Joseph, who gets Himself noticed. He has big ideas, He seems to think that He’s something. And so people come down on Him.
The parallels between the story of Joseph and the story of Jesus’ life and death have often been noted. We have two stories of beloved sons. He came to His own, and His own received Him not. Just as Joseph is rejected by His brothers, so too Jesus. Joseph is sold for twenty pieces of silver; Jesus is betrayed for thirty. Joseph is falsely accused and imprisoned; Jesus is falsely accused and becomes a captive of death, imprisoned in the tomb. Joseph is released and becomes the right-hand man of Pharaoh, the effective ruler of Egypt; Jesus is raised up by the Father, released from the tomb, and ascends to the right hand of God. As Psalm 105 puts it:
… he had sent a man before them : even Joseph, who was sold to be a bond-servant;
Whose feet they hurt in the stocks : the iron entered into his soul;
Until the time came that his cause was known: the word of the Lord tried him.
The king sent, and delivered him : the prince of the people let him go free.
He made him lord also of his house : and ruler of all his substance;
We can read the story of Joseph at a moral level. We can and we should try to be attentive to the ways in which we can be cruel and unkind to our brothers and sisters, the ways in which we try to undermine and cut down those who stand out, those who are different, those who annoy us in one way or another. We might not have ever sold anyone into slavery, but if we’re honest we can probably think of times when we’ve humiliated and put down others through our words and our actions, and times when we’ve gossiped and stirred up other people to do the same.
And perhaps too we can learn to be more attentive to the ways in which we irritate other people through our insensitivity and occasional bouts of grandeur. Joseph has a hard lesson in humility forced upon him in slavery and in prison; Jesus for His part humbles Himself, taking the form of a slave. We too must learn humility: sometimes like Joseph we have lessons in humility forced upon us; sometimes, like Jesus and through His grace, we learn to humble ourselves.
But as well as reading this story at a moral level, we can also allow the Joseph story to help us notice details in Jesus’ story that perhaps we might not otherwise have noticed, particularly the dynamics of jealousy in those who conspire against Him, and also the deep humanity of Jesus’ story: when John’s gospel tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, we see through the connections with Joseph’s story just how intimate is Jesus’ dwelling among humanity, sharing in our sorrows and joys, experiencing from the inside all the complexities of the dynamics of human families and communities.
And we are reminded, as we no doubt struggle from time to time with our own families and friendship groups and communities and even, dare I say it, within our church families, that the Lord Jesus is close to us in this too, and that all of these things, as difficult as they often are, can be means of grace for us, and that God works out His loving purposes through the times when we get things wrong sometimes even more than through the times when we think that we have got things right.
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.