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Lectionary Living

Define or defile?!

8/16: Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133  •  Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Psalm 67  •  Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32  •  Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

    Between last week's Genesis 37 reading and this week's Genesis 45, there are several great Bible stories – worthy of their place both in classical literature and in Sunday School classes everywhere. Joseph, Jacob's favorite son, sold by his siblings, becomes a slave in Egypt. He was successful (as these things go!) until one day, refusing to be seduced by his master's daughter, he finds himself falsely accused and thrown into prison. In jail, he becomes famous for dream interpretation. One day he is summoned to interpret the Pharaoh's bad dreams. Predicting a famine ahead, and giving sage advice to the Pharaoh, he finds himself released from prison, suddenly chief of staff for a powerful ruler.

     Meanwhile, back in Canaan, Joseph's father Jacob sends all his brothers except Benjamin to Egypt, searching for food as the famine has hit their family hard. When they arrive, Joseph recognizes his brothers, who do not, of course, connect this powerful man with the young Joseph they had known. He requires them to return home and bring back Benjamin: Joseph's only full brother, the only brother also born by Rachel, Jacob's favorite wife. When they bring Benjamin back, the story takes some tricky turns, eventually with Joseph saying that they can all leave, except for Benjamin. At this point, another brother, Judah, takes a stand (see Genesis 43:33-34). Judah refuses to return to Jacob without Benjamin. He talks about his fear of seeing how his father would suffer if Benjamin did not return home, and offers himself as a slave instead. Next, Joseph – in the opening verse of chapter 45 – sends everyone away so he can have a good cry. Then he calls them all back in, reveals who he is, and arranges for the family to settle in Egypt where they can survive the famine.

    How Jacob's family manages itself through the seven-year famine is a tale with many implications for our pandemic times. The family's relationship processes have changed from the time when Joseph was thrown in a pit by his big brothers. The years of servitude had brought remarkable changes in Joseph himself. Joseph is no longer a whiner, no longer a tattler, but now a leader exercising responsibility to others. The family itself seems to be practicing a little more open communication among its members, less bound by secrets. The family is also more goal-focused, recognizing the need to find a way to provide for all its members during the long famine. And Judah has grown up, making the consideration of the entire family system a part of his decision-making process.

    Judah had many years to reflect on his own contributions to Jacob's sadness at the loss of Joseph, and at Joseph's plight as well. In his thoughts, Judah had started connecting his capacity for reason with his emotions, providing energy for some difficult choices. He defines himself as a person wanting to take responsibility for his part of the problem. In offering to become a slave himself, he stepped up to the challenge of the situation in courageous words and choices of his own.

    Words coming out of a person's mouth – or in text messages or tweets – can either define or defile the person doing the talking. Sometimes, a person knows it instantly – oh, I wish I wouldn't have said that! Somehow, as Jesus points out (Matthew 15:11), one's words taint oneself, damaging the inner person. The third chapter of James provides a more thorough treatment of the human challenge of taming the tongue. Here, hope comes from an unexpected place: neurological research. Brain plasticity exists; even well-worn neural pathways can be altered, diverted, or worked around until alternate paths begin. When a person can stop the diatribe of blaming or taunting or criticizing, instead engaging in emotional self-regulation, then the person is healing herself. Ultimately, it's less what a person says, and more what she does, (or, in Judah's case, what he was willing to do) that defines each of us.

 

Reflections

Morning: How many of my family members am I in touch with on family challenges, covid or otherwise?

Evening: When were my words today self-defining?

Psalm 133:1 How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

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Oh Brother(s)!

8/9: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 and Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b  •  1 Kings 19:9-18 and Psalm 85:8-13  •  Romans 10:5-15  •  Matthew 14:22-33

 

    This week's Genesis reading finds Jacob back in Canaan, an older man, relying on his twelve sons to shepherd his flocks. His favorite wife, Rachel, has died and his favorite son – Rachel's firstborn, Joseph, 11th of the 12 brothers from his four wives – is 17 years old. He's a shepherd's helper, assigned to assist his older brothers, who probably made life hard for him when they had the chance. He has a protected status, though, less helper and more reporter, going back and forth between the fields and his father. His favored child status has been highlighted by a beautiful, comfortable coat which Jacob has had made for him and him alone, making his brothers all the more resentful. As today's scripture opens, Joseph is a tattletale, bringing back a 'bad report' to Jacob.

    Next – and found in verses 5-11, inexplicably left out of today's scripture passage – Joseph has two dreams about his brothers bowing down to him. Well, given his place on the young end of the sibling pecking order, how wouldn't he dream about that. But Joseph, unable to resist the chance to lord it over his brothers, makes the mistake of telling them about these dreams: stories not greeted with a chuckle from the group. At their next opportunity – with all of the older brothers together, herding sheep, far from home – they see Joseph in his fabulous coat on the horizon, sent by their father to check on them. They look at each other and say, here comes that dreamer!

    They then begin to plot their revenge, talking about killing him. The oldest brother, Reuben, son of Leah, diverts them to a more harmless prank, which they agree to, first taking Joseph's fancy coat and then throwing him into a pit. Reuben, planning to come back later and rescue him, somehow seems to be gone from the next scene when a caravan of traders passes nearby. Judah, the 4th child of Leah, convinces the younger brothers to sell Joseph as a slave to the traders rather than kill him; the traders take Joseph to Egypt.  On his return, Reuben is devastated by the news. The brothers work out a plan to deceive their father into thinking Joseph had been killed by a wild beast, dipping the coat into the blood of a goat. They send a report to Jacob along with the coat, saying that it was all they had found of their brother.

    Multigenerational patterns are everywhere in this story. Jacob was once the son who wished to be his father's favorite, and who deceived his dad. Jacob's protection of Joseph went terribly wrong, as did Abraham's protection of Isaac. Conflict between siblings was the rule, between Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel. Sibling position was also at play.

    In today's story, Reuben, the oldest, tries to protect Joseph. The lives of firstborns can get mired up in an astonishingly unrealistic sense of responsibility for others, coupled with an abdication of responsibility for self. They do in some ways provide a useful function in a family, while enjoying the reliance of others on them. However, as this example illustrates, when responsibility gets located in one person rather than spread over the group, immaturity for the family unit results.

    Beyond Reuben, the rest of the brothers are stuck, too: unable to conceptualize that each of them might have a solid, separate relationship with their father, who seems limited in his capacity to lead in this matter. Joseph, an almost-youngest, is accustomed to his father's protection. He's also used to his brothers doing most of the work, making him both less capable and more dependent on them. He responds immaturely in this story – from telling on his brothers to broadcasting his dreams – lacking any insight into what his siblings are up against or how to manage himself in relationship processes. Joseph, like all of us, whether over or under-functioners, had a lot of growing up to do.

 

For reflection:

Morning: In my family and at work, where is the over and under-functioning? What do I contribute to the patterns?

Evening: When did I respond today from what is automatic for me, given how my sibling position worked? What do I want to understand about my family's multigenerational processes?

Psalm 105:3b Let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.

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A long night

August 2: Genesis 32:22-31 and Psalm 17:1-7, 15  •  Isaiah 55:1-5 and Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21  •  Romans 9:1-5  •  Matthew 14:13-21

 

    Between last week's Genesis reading – where Jacob's father-in-law Laban tricks him into marrying the older sister of his chosen bride – and today's reading, where Jacob is wrestling all night, a lot has happened. Jacob has gotten rich, outwitting Laban through an elaborate scheme for breeding sheep. He has fathered eleven children through wives Rachel and Leah, and their slaves. He has left Laban's household with flocks, family members, and much wealth, to return to his father Isaac's home.

    As you might expect from this saga, the leaving itself was not without its own deceitful dramas. Jacob sneaks away without telling Laban his plans; Rachel steals the household gods. When Laban catches up to them, he complains that he didn't even get to say good-bye to his kids. He searches for the household gods, but Rachel successfully hides them from him. They have one last night together, and Laban bids them farewell, demanding that Jacob promise to treat his daughters kindly and setting a clear boundary between their lands.

    Once Laban is gone though, the story shifts. Jacob faces a different problem; his brother Esau is on his way, with 400 men, enough to destroy Jacob's entire family and take all the wealth. Jacob splits them into two groups, thinking that if Esau finds one, he may destroy it and not look for the other. Then Jacob prays, and in that prayer, he freely admits that he is afraid of Esau. He comes up with a plan, sending Esau a bunch of gifts of sheep in advance. He gets his wives and eleven kids to the safest spot he can find. And then he finds himself alone – where today's Genesis reading begins.

    It was a sleepless night, a night spent wrestling with a mysterious figure, first identified in verse 24 as a man, although in verse 30, Jacob says he had seen God face to face. Eventually Jacob is injured. The figure asks him for his name; then he changes it from Jacob to Israel, meaning one who has striven with God and people, and prevailed. He blesses Jacob and departs.   

    Although the story has elements of mystery, much seems familiar. Sleepless nights spent worrying about a family member, anxiety and fears escalating, are not uncommon. Tossing and turning through the night as one imagines the possible outcomes can seem like a wrestling match almost, although seldom causing physical injury. A bad conclusion to the night is when one gets up, still afraid, and with no clarity about who one is nor what one will do. A good conclusion is when one gets up, still afraid, but having gotten a little clearer about oneself and decided what one will do and not do.

    Jacob seems to have been blessed with a good conclusion. When he meets his brother (just a few verses ahead), he is a different person. Deceit is replaced by humility. He restores, to the best of his ability, all that he has taken from his brother, all that the stealing of his brother's blessing had involved. It is not merely property that he seeks to restore – it is a recognition of place, calling his brother "Lord," as the blessing intended for his brother would have involved. He comes without an apology or rehashing of past wrongs, but with a decision to approach his brother differently, with respect, going forward.

    Who knows how far back the enmity between the two brothers went, or what had happened between them? Esau was his dad's favorite; Jacob was his mom's; they had never learned how to relate to each other outside of those parental shadows. Their parents had selected each of them as favorites without thought, but automatically, based on patterns they had grown up with. Their family had no framework for thinking together about how to go forward with the resource needs and responsibilities of each of its members in mind. In Jacob's struggle, though, as he finds a way out of automatic emotional processes to a more intentional way of living, the entire family unit can begin to mature.  

 

Reflections:

Morning: How do I think about my family's resources and responsibilities to one another?

Evening: What anxieties and worries do I have at the end of the day? What do I need to get clear on?

Psalm 17:5 My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.

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Deceit Motif

July 26: Genesis 29:15-28 and Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128  •  1 Kings 3:5-12 and Psalm 119:129-136  •  Romans 8:26-39  •  Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

 

Today's Genesis reading reminds me of the expression turn about is fair play, or even better, two can play that game. Laban lies to Jacob – essentially tricking him into marrying not Rachel, whom he had bargained and worked seven years for, but instead her older sister, Leah. Talk about getting his comeuppance for the tricks he'd pulled on his brother and father! Now he must bargain for Rachel's hand a second time, marrying her a week later in return for seven more years of working for Laban. In practice, the bargain may have made little difference to Jacob, who was at that point not prepared to leave Laban's household. As the story unfolds in the next chapters, Jacob carries out an elaborate plan to outwit Laban so that he, Jacob, may acquire considerable wealth before going.

 

In a sense, you have to admire Jacob. He was a hard-worker, willing to put his energy into getting what he wanted. He was patient, too, willing to take whatever time was needed to marry his favorite and to build his fortune. The trouble with him was the lying, the deception, the trickery that went with him. It is as though he is afraid to be himself.

Another person afraid to be herself in this story is Leah – the older sister, the less attractive, the one who was always envying her younger sister Rachel. What was it like for her, to participate with her father in deceiving Jacob? How much of her life had been spent in focusing on her younger sister and how to outwit her, rather than in a focus on her own self and what she could do with her life?

 

Leah's story unfolds in the next pages with her giving her sons names that would be sure to grate on the (so far infertile) Rachel's nerves – naming the first one Reuben, meaning See, a son. Jacob, for his part, gets busy with breeding the sheep so that his own flocks get stronger while Laban's get weaker. For Leah, seeing her sister as the favored one, the one she had to beat somehow, was a lifelong pattern keeping her from discovering within herself the person she might become. For Jacob, seeing Laban as the latest person to be deceived in order to get his way was a lifelong pattern keeping him from discovering within himself the person he might become. For both Leah and Jacob, these old patterns kept them from becoming their authentic selves.

 

In the Matthew reading, Jesus seems to be talking about just this dilemma in the story of the trader looking for fine pearls. Picture the trader, picking up each pearl, examining it carefully and seeing its beauty. Reading scripture is itself a way of looking for fine pearls – a way of searching for what matters. In the gospel story, the trader saw what he was looking for and gave up everything else for it: all in one sweeping moment. In life, though, it's a constant challenge. Working to discover and express one's best, authentic, genuine self is an ongoing effort. On a daily basis, the process involves both finding and using that most mature self to connect with others and then letting the rest go.

 

Facing one's own self-deceit is part of the process of choosing the pearl of great price. An awareness of one's own complicity in one's problems, for example, rather than the blaming of others, is part of being honest. A knowledge of the bigger picture of what is actually happening, rather than staying so distant from others that one lacks the facts, is part of being responsible to others. An understanding of how one's own actions are impacting others, rather than a sole focus on one's own course, is part of being aware – a part of stopping the self-deceit. In the end, there is a lot to be said for staying grounded in reality.

 

Reflections

Morning: What is my contribution to the problems I will face today?

Evening: Where did I distance today? When did I lose sight of the bigger picture?

Psalm 105:3b Let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.

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