by Linda McMillan
It has been raining in my town this week. At the school where I work we are having a week-long arts camp for the younger children, including some outdoor activities. The lobby and art room have often looked like a Jackson Pollock painting, if Jackson Pollock had painted with mud, glue, and clay, umbrellas, and — oh yeah — a little paint. It’s hard to clean it all up. The only mess I can think of that would be harder to clean up is the mess that Joseph’s brother’s have gotten themselves into in this week’s lectionary reading.
If you only read the verses assigned in the reading it appears to be a scene of reconciliation and forgiveness. But the passages before and after reveal a more complicated story. Let me refresh your memory:
Joseph was the youngest of eleven sons. The father of all these sons was Jacob, the dreamer. Joseph was also a dreamer and Jacob loved him more than his other sons who were shepherds more than dreamers. The other sons weren’t so crazy about Joseph. They knew that in every generation there was one brother who was no good and they believed Joseph was it. From the time of Abraham, though, this has not been one of those happy “family-values” families, so you know trouble’s brewing.
One day Jacob sent Joseph out into the fields to check on his brothers. The brothers took this opportunity to get rid of Joseph by selling him into slavery. They convinced Jacob that wild animals had eaten Joseph.
Twenty-two years passed during which time Jacob grieved over Joseph, but had another younger son to comfort him. The sons who sold Joseph convinced themselves that he was dead and that they’d done a service to their family by getting him out of there. And Joseph… Well, Joseph somehow became viceroy over all Egypt. He was “that guy.” As a slave he managed to become the chief administrator of a great house, as a prisoner he become a leader among the prisoners, finally gaining his freedom and rising to the highest levels of government. Joseph always landed on his feet and then some. Though, he never really forgot what his brothers had done to him.
When there was a famine in the land Joseph’s brothers came to him for food, only they didn’t know it was Joseph. Joseph toyed with them, exacting his revenge by accusing them of being thieves, throwing them in jail, and demanding that they bring their younger brother to him before he would give them any more food. The brothers had been right about one thing: Joseph was not a nice man.
That brings us to today’s story in which Jospeh appears to be the loving son and forgiving brother, but we’ve read the whole story, we know better.
Besides rising to glory in Egypt, Joseph had spent the last 22 years dreaming of the day his brothers would bow down before him as he’d predicted. Just as they’d thrown him into the pit, he would throw them into jail and exact his revenge. What a fine dream that must have been. If we are honest, some of us have had dreams like that too. It’s pretty common. It’s the dream when your enemies are proven wrong and you are the hero who saves the world. It’s a good dream. I’ve had it too.
Joseph’s brothers had spent the past 22 years weaving together their own story. They convinced themselves that they had been justified in selling Joseph into slavery. He had been out to get them, after all, he dreamed of ruling over them. Like Joseph, they became the heroes of their own story, saviors of the family. Even though they regretted the heartache they’d caused their father, they knew they’d done the right thing. That’s how it is when we tell our own stories. We get to be the hero.
But, now everything had changed.
Now that they know he’s alive the stories they’ve told themselves and one another are starting to unravel. What will they say? How will they break the news to Jacob? It’s a very messy situation.
Look, you know the story. They do tell Jacob the truth and all the family move down to Egypt, to the land of Goshen, where things go well for them, you know, until they start to go bad.
The interesting thing about this reading is how everybody had their own story, a story that they really believed, which was totally untrue. In our lives we have stories, stories that we really believe, and some of them may be true. But this passage reminds us that some of our stories may not be true. What if Jacob had asked a few more questions and uncovered the truth about Joseph? Or, what if the brothers had managed to weave together a more fact-based story for themselves? They might not have been able to un-do the harm they’d caused, but they might have learned to live with the truth of their lives instead of a lie.
It is understandable that they were shocked when they met Joseph. For them, he was a ghost! They had bought into their own story, believed their own lie.
The thing about living with one lie is that it makes it easier to live with multiple lies. Once we become the unquestioned hero of our own story, anything is possible, our cause is always just and right, there are no regrets. But do we want to live that way?
I suspect that a lot of people are living like that. It’s pretty much the way of the world. But we don’t have to. We can ask hard questions, we can confront difficult truths even about ourselves.
As a country we are starting to ask some hard questions about what it means for all people to have been created equally, and confront the fact that many of us don’t really believe that at all. Some have taken to avidly questioning society and one another too, but how many of us have questioned ourselves? Our own beliefs?
You can be the hero of your own story, you should be. But the hero is often one who goes down a few times before rising to the top. Jonah went down to Joppa, Joseph went down to Egypt, and we’ve all been down a few paths we didn’t choose, or wish we hadn’t. Maybe you’re feeling down right now. It’s OK. The truth of your life is more powerful than any story of convenience. When Joseph finally relinquished his convenient cover story and revealed the truth of his identity it opened the possibility for reconciliation and reunited his family. That’s powerful.
Today’s reading instructs us to look at our stories. Do we need to ask more questions? Have we used wool of convenience or the sturdier wool of truth in weaving our stories?
I wonder what might be unleashed if we unraveled the stories that are based on lies and instead wove stories of truth, accepting each strand, every color and hue. What power might be unleashed in the world, our church, in our lives?
Linda McMillan lives in YangZhong, China — Home of the pufferfish!
Image: Joseph Weeps By Owen Jones – http://www.gallery.oldbookart.com/main.php?g2_itemId=30588, Public Domain, Link
Some Notes of Possible Interest
There’s a midrash that the sons decided to have Serach, Asher’s daughter, play the harp for Jacob to ease the shock finding out that Joseph was still alive. They told her that when she played for her grandfather she should sing the words, “Joseph is still alive, Joseph is still alive” as she played. It is probably the clumsiest plan in recorded history, but whether or not it’s true they managed to get the message to Jacob that Joseph was still alive. Jacob was understandably shocked, the the beauty of Serach’s music comforted him. It is said that Serach’s reward for being a comfort to her grandfather was that he gave her a blessing of longevity, and she became the only person to go down to Egypt with Jacob AND come back out with Moses 210 years later. Imagine!