Two lessons from the life of Joseph

  • Adapted from a talk given at Glenwood Church on 30 August 2015.

    I was talking about Joseph’s story with my wife, Cathy, and she said ‘What kind of person must Joseph have been? That all his brothers were willing to pretend he was dead? You’d think one of them would have said “Come on, he’s not that bad.” But no, they all went along with it.’

    Joseph had eleven brothers. His father, Jacob, had two wives, Leah and Rachel – who were actually sisters. That’s a story in itself. But of the two sisters, Rachel only had two children – the eldest one being Joseph.

    It does make you think. How annoying was Joseph. Ten older brothers and none of them could bear him?

    I’m very fortunate to have a younger brother who I get on with well. We have always been close, but, growing up if he kept telling me how he had dreams that I was going to end bowing down to him, I would probably have lamped him one.

    Joseph was sold into slavery, ended up far away from home, thrown in prison, and left to rot. But actually, no, I don’t feel particularly sorry for him. He was an arrogant guy and he got his comeuppance.

    However, as we have heard, that wasn’t the end of the story. Eventually his skill at interpreting dreams got him out of prison and working for Pharoah, and then at the end of his story, his prediction came true. All his brothers were forced to travel to Egypt to find food in a terrible famine, and they bowed low before him, and even his father, Jacob, by now incredibly old, travelled and bowed down in front of him to plead to be allowed to buy food.

    It’s an incredible story, and we get the sense that Joseph is a different man at the end of all this than at the beginning. He is able to forgive his brothers for their terrible crime against him.

    But even up to the end of the story, Joseph is still a bit of an idiot. His brothers didn’t recognise him and when he tells them who he is it causes them a huge shock.  But before he reveals his identity, Joseph messes with his brothers, framing them for a crime they didn’t commit so that he could keep Benjamin, the youngest brother – and the only brother he shared a mother with – behind in Egypt while the others go and get his father.

    It is only when one of his other brothers, Judah, offers to take Benjamin’s place that Joseph’s pride is finally broken. It’s only then that he realises that his brothers didn’t hate him because they had a different mother or because he was his dad’s favourite.  They hated him because he had revelled in being special and spoiled.

    After all he has been through, it is only when Joseph is confronted with his own failings and realises what kind of person he is, that he is transformed.

    Joseph, then is the model for our own penitence. We can only repent when we are truly honest about the kind of person we are, and when we desperately want to change.

    Up until that point we can hold on to the idea that we are just misunderstood, that our attitudes and actions are somehow justified, that there is nothing really, deep down wrong with us – it’s everyone else who has the problem. Maybe Joseph had thought that – how terrible his brothers were for the way they reacted when he told them about his wonderful dreams.

    But, like Joseph, we are only transformed when we finally admit that the problem is with us, when we accept responsibility for our role in what has happened, when we acknowledge the things we have done wrong, and when we seek to put things right.

    That’s one important lesson from Joseph’s story. I think there is another lesson we can learn, which is important for churched, rather than just as individuals.

    Joseph’s actions and attitudes illustrate the difference between being gifted or skilled in something and having depth in character.

    Joseph was gifted. He had the gift of prophetic dreams and the skill to interpret the dreams of others. But he didn’t have the character to go with it. So when he had a dream and interpreted it that his family would one day bow down to him, he bragged about it. He used his skills to elevate himself, to make himself seem really important.

    The difference between ability and character can be confusing, so here’s one way to distinguish them. Ability is what everyone sees, but character is often formed in secret. Talented individuals often get the praise because when they use their talents people see them in action. Character is a lot harder to spot. It takes time to form and it takes effort to nurture.

    It’s been said that if you spend 10,000 hours practicing something you will become ‘world class’ at it. To develop a skill or a talent requires practice and dedication to it. But in that sense it is easy to do.

    Character is harder to nurture, because character is tested in situations that you can’t practice for.What do you do when someone unexpectedly threatens you – either physically in the street, or metaphorically in your team at work? What do you do when somebody rear-ends your car? How do you react to a snub or an unwarranted put-down?

    Character dictates what we do and how we react in unexpected situations, and as such, it’s not something you can practice. What really happens is that those circumstances create moments that reveal your true self – your desires, motivations, fears and kneejerk responses.

    We need to get smarter in churches about spotting character and not being overly impressed by a person’s skills.

    If you have been a member of a church for any length of time you will have had some kind of experience of disappointment in a person. If you haven’t had it yet, you will. And, truthfully, the people who might disappoint you most are the people who seem to be the most skilled or gifted. Why? Because we discover a disconnect between what we see – their skills and gifts – and who they are – their character.

    One of the things that Jesus said that is quite chilling when you think about it is in Matthew chapter 7, verses 21-23.

    “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

    Is Jesus being serious there? Do you think he is?

    We always have to remember that if we have been given even the most powerful gifts – and prophesying, driving out demons and performing many miracles are powerful gifts – using those gifts should never be about us. And nowhere do we see that more clearly than in the story of Joseph. He used his gifts to raise himself up and put other people down; to make himself seem important. His gifts were all about him. That, as it proved, was a recipe for disaster.

    So, those are two things we can learn from this story.

    Firstly, we will only be transformed into the people God promises us we can become if we are willing to stop blaming others and realise that we need to fix our faults. We can start that by asking God to forgive us our sins; the things we have done.

    And secondly, we need to consider our character. We may not be the best at whatever we put our mind to. Or we may become the absolute best at whatever we choose to do. But it’s irrelevant either way because what matters is not what we do, but who we are.

    Other freelance theology posts about Joseph

    Joseph practicing divination in Genesis chapter 44

    Dreams, interpretations and scientific evidence

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