Day 17: Betrayal in Communities
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
The dreams are more than crystal clear, the writing on the wall,
means that Joseph someday soon will rise above us all;
The accuracy of the dreams, we brothers do not know
But one thing we are sure about, the dreamer has to go![i]
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat
(Lyrics by Tim Rice, 1968)
Almighty God, Heavenly Father, we humbly ask you to cleanse us in this holy season of fasting and penance, that we may keep the coming feast in all sincerity and truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Old Testament Lesson
The story of Joseph is one of the most beloved in the OT. Joseph was the youngest of the twelve sons of Jacob (referred to as Israel in this passage). His brothers were jealous because of the special attention Jacob showed to young Joseph. Joseph had two dreams that foresaw his brothers bowing down to him. This incurs their ire. Prompted by their hatred of Joseph, they sold him into slavery, lying to their father that he had been killed. But, in a great reversal of fortune, Joseph went to Egypt and rose to become the master of Pharaoh’s household and, eventually, Prime Minister of Egypt. Prompted by an ensuing famine, the brothers eventually did bow down to Joseph to procure grain. In the end, Joseph forgave his brothers and reunited with his father, prompting their move from Palestine to Egypt. For early Christian readers of this story, it usually reminded them of the mistreatment Christ endured for sinners and the resulting redemption he offers to those who will humble themselves and seek Him.
6Then Joseph said to them, “Hey, listen to this dream which I dreamt. 7So we were binding sheaves in the middle of the field when my sheaf arose and stood upright, while your sheaves surrounded mine and bowed down.” 8Then his brothers said to him, “Do you honestly believe you’ll rule over us or that you’ll exercise dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and because of what he said.
9Then Joseph dreamt another dream and recounted it to his brothers. He said, “Hey I dreamt another dream – this time, the sun, the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me!” 10And Joseph recounted it to his father and to his brothers. His father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream which you have dreamt? Honestly? Shall your mother, your brothers and I go in to bow down to the ground in front of you?” So his brothers were jealous, but his father kept in mind what he said.
12Next his brothers went out to shepherd their father’s flock around Shechem. 13And Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are shepherding around Shechem, aren’t they? Go, I’m sending you to them.” So Joseph said to him, “Ok, I’m ready.”
14Then Israel said to him, “Please go and check up on the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock, then return to me with a report.” And Israel sent him off from the valley of Hebron and Joseph entered Shechem.
15Now a man found Joseph as he was wandering around in the field. So the man asked him, saying, “What are you looking for?” 16And he said, “I’m looking for my brothers. Please tell me where they’re shepherding!” 17So the man said, “They pulled out from here. In fact, I heard them saying, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went to Dothan after his brothers and he found them in Dothan.
18Now the brothers saw Joseph from afar and before he came too close to them, they started conspiring to kill him. 19And they were talking to one another, saying, “Hey look, the great master, the dreamer of dreams is coming! So, come, let’s kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns and say that a wild animal ate him. Then let’s see how his dreams turn out!”
21Now when Reuben heard it, he rescued Joseph out of their hand and said, “We must not take his life!” So Reuben said to them, “Do not spill his blood. Toss him into this cistern which is over there in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.” (Reuben said this so that he might rescue him out their hands and return him to his father.)
New Testament Lesson
From the second century onward, Christians have usually read this parable as an allegory of salvation.[ii] For example, Irenaeus, the greatest Christian theologian of the second century, wrote that the vineyard in this parable represented the human race; the tenant farmers were the Jewish leadership; the tower was Jerusalem; and the dug-out winepress was the ability to receive the Spirit. [iii] The Father sent his prophets who were usually mistreated, killed or ignored. The Father then sent his Son, Jesus, who would likewise be mistreated and killed.[iv] As a result, the gifts of the Spirit are now given to the Church which receives the Lord’s cultivated fruits. Thus Jesus is passing judgment on the religious leadership of his day because they cannot even recognize the Son of God when he is standing before them. When Jesus quotes Ps 118 at the end of the passage, he is making a messianic claim, employing it to predict both his coming humiliation and exaltation.[v]
33Hear another parable. A certain man was the owner and manager of a small business who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for a winepress, built a tower and rented it out to tenant farmers. Then he went away on a journey. 34So, when harvest time drew near, he sent his slaves to the tenant farmers to collect his fruits. 35But the tenant farmers took his slaves, one they flogged, one they killed and one they stoned. 36Once again, he sent other slaves, more than at first, and they acted likewise toward them. 37Lastly, he sent his son, saying, they’ll show deference to my son. 38But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir, come, let’s kill him so we might get his inheritance.’ 39So seizing him, they threw him outside the vineyard and killed him. 40Now, when the master of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?
41They said to him, “He’ll completely destroy those wretched louses and hire out the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will pay out to him the fruit in its season.” 42Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is from the Lord and it is marvelous in our eyes.’?
43‘Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken into pieces, and the one on whom it falls, will be crushed.” 45And when the High Priests and Pharisees heard his parable, they knew that he was speaking about them. 46So they wanted to grab him, but they were afraid of the crowds, since they thought he was a prophet.
Questions for Reflection
- Who picks on you? In what ways do you feel mistreated, put upon or otherwise disrespected? Are you able to forgive those who mistreat you?
- In Joseph’s story, who are you most like? Joseph? The brothers? The father? Whom do you most dislike in the story?
- The Jewish leaders clearly thought they were doing the right thing by resisting Jesus and his claims. On what issues are you so sure of the correctness of your position that you don’t even listen to the arguments of others anymore? Is this a good thing?
- We tend not to like judgmental people. Yet Jesus is being very judgmental in the passage. At what times should we be judgmental and at what times should we hold our tongues? How do you decide? How do we reconcile this with Jesus’ command not to judge others (Matt 7.1)?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
Upon seeing the son, the tenant farmers, cry out, “Let’s kill him.” This is a direct quote from the Greek version of Joseph’s story. It occurs nowhere else.[vi] Thus Matthew wants us to realize that these two stories, although separated by centuries, are meant to be read together. Joseph and Jesus have something to do with each other.
This follows our lesson from yesterday where Jesus told the Jews that Moses had written about him. How did Moses, who lived at least fifteen-hundred years before Jesus, write about Him? As Jesus will explain to his disciples after the resurrection, the whole Old Testament is meant to be read in light of Christ because it is fulfilled in him (Luk 24.27, 44).
Today, both of our lessons depict the terrible, unjust treatment of someone who should be honored. Joseph has done nothing wrong except, in his youthful indiscretion, letting his brothers and father know about his dream. The son in the parable did nothing wrong except to show up. They were both badly mistreated. One was killed and the other survived only by the barest of margins.
Yet each story has an element of redemption embedded in it. For Joseph, Reuben comes to his rescue and saves him from being killed by the brothers. In the parable, the vineyard passes to other tenant farmers who will be more honorable.
However, there are also great threats of judgment that come upon those who mistreat others who should be honored. The vineyard doesn’t just pass to new owners – the old ones are destroyed. Later in the story, Joseph’s brothers, starving in the midst of a famine, are put in the position of begging for grain. Their suffering is just.
What are we to make of this? We could say that these stories are a warning to each of us to make sure we aren’t mistreating others out of a false sense of righteous pride. It is terribly easy, and often tempting, to take advantage of the weak or the unpopular, precisely because we don’t like them. There is always an “other” out there lurking, just waiting for us to dismiss them.
But it might be more instructive to turn the spotlight onto ourselves. We Episcopalians certainly have a self-concept of being honorable. We think our penchant for moderate positions ought to save us from many grave errors. No doubt they do.
But here’s the problem: we share the same human heart as everyone else. And, by now, in Lent, we should have noticed that our hearts are not pure. Left to our devices we could easily end up like the religious leaders depicted in the parable. We could easily be the brothers, egging on the crowd. We could easily prefer war to peace, economic disparity to the common good and injustice to justice. We could easily prefer to enforce our own self-interest rather than caring about the interests of others. We could easily fall into this trap because we’re human and this sums up the human condition.
The Church has too many examples of fractured communities to think that this very same tendency doesn’t reside in us. Lent is the time to realize that we love to talk about peace and love and justice, but usually on our own terms. All of us find it disturbingly difficult to love our enemies. This is why we so badly need the grace of God to heal our fractured souls.
We need to repent. We need to swear off hatred. We need to reach out to those we have mistreated and beg for forgiveness. We need to stop splitting the Church by enforcing our own agendas at the expense of others. In short, we desperately need to be made whole again. We need to learn to love like Christ loved us and to give ourselves to others like He did.
The full story of Joseph is one of the best stories in the Bible. Read it. Start with Gen 37, skip chapter 38 and read from Gen 39-48.
Fridays are traditionally a day for Christians to abstain from meat or other rich foods. Observe this.
- Lectio Divina
Read our OT lesson spiritually by making yourself one of the characters in the story. For example, pretend you’re one of the brothers. How do you feel when you see Joseph? Why do you hate him so much? What’s it like to be part of the group doing harm to another? Ask the Lord for grace to see in the characters of the story what needs to change in you.
[i]http://www.lyricsondemand.com/soundtracks/j/josephandtheamazingtechnicolordreamcoatlyrics/josephsdreamslyrics.html, accessed 12-8-2015
[ii] Luz, Matthew 21-28, 38.
[iii] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Ex Fontibus, 2012), 4.36.2, p. 536.
[iv] Ibid., 4.36.2, P. 536.
[v] Carson and Beale, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 74.
[vi] Richard Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2014), 9.