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Family Dysfunction

Gen 37:1-4, 12-14, 17b-28
Jennifer Browne
University United Methodist Church

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I have good news and bad news. The good news is that we have an entire Andrew Lloyd Webber musical extravaganza to explain today‟s Scripture reading to us. The bad news is: I have no way to show it to you. Never fear, the second bit of good news is: the lyrics for anything are available at the stroke of a keyboard letter. So, imagine a very young Donny Osmond, with the same very white teeth he has now, as Joseph. His father, Jacob, speaks first:

Joseph's mother, she was quite my favorite wife I never really loved another all my life
And Joseph was my joy because
He reminded me of her

Through young Joseph, Jacob lived his youth again Loved him, praised him, gave him all he could, but then It made the rest feel second best
And even if they were -

Being told we're also-rans Does not makes us Joseph fans

Joseph's charm and winning smile
Failed to slay them in the aisle
And his father couldn't see the danger
He could not imagine any danger
He just saw in Joseph all his dreams come true Jacob wanted to show the world he loved his son To make it clear that Joseph was the special one So Jacob bought his son a coat
A multi-colored coat to wear

And when Joseph tried it on
He knew his sheepskin days were gone Such a dazzling coat of many colors How he loved his coat of many colors

In a class above the rest
It even went well with his vest
Such a stunning coat of many colors How he loved his coat of many colors It was red and yellow and green and

Brown and blue
Joseph's brothers weren't
Too pleased with what they saw

We have never liked him All that much before And now this coat
Has got our goat
We feel life is unfair

And when Joseph graced the scene His brothers turned a shade of green

I look handsome, I look smart
I am walking work of art
Such a dazzling coat of colors
How I love my coat of many colors


It was red and yellow and green and brown And purple and white and pink and orange And blue

There‟s a second bit of bad news, too. When you actually read the Bible – and not the lyrics of Tim Rice – you discover that the coat in question is not a “coat of many colors.” It‟s a “long robe with sleeves.” Which is much harder to fit into the rhyme and rhythm of a Broadway song! It‟s not just Lloyd Webber who described the coat that way, of course. In older Bibles, Joseph‟s coat was always the “coat of many colors.” More modern translations reflect more accurate translations from the original Hebrew, but “coat with long sleeves” just isn‟t as much fun.

The point is this: Joseph‟s coat was special because his father, Jacob, thought Joseph was special. Despite the trouble caused by his own status as his mother‟s favored son, Jacob passes on the tradition and chooses one of his twelve sons to elevate above the rest.

Indeed, the pattern of family strife caused by competition between brothers runs throughout the Book of Genesis: Cain murdered Abel out of jealousy; Isaac supplanted Ishmael in the heart of their father Abraham; Jacob and Esau wrestled for prominence even in their mother‟s womb. You‟d think Jacob would‟ve figured this out by the time he is an old man. But, no, Joseph is one of the youngest of Jacob‟s many children, but he is the oldest of Jacob‟s favorite wife, Rachel. So Jacob, as the text says, “loved him more than all his brothers.”

Joseph himself, though talented as an interpreter of dreams, is – at the very best – clueless about human relations. At the very worst he‟s self-absorbed and egotistical. Our reading today skipped over the story about his dreams. The short version is that Joseph has two

different dreams with the same message: Joseph will become preeminent in his family. His brothers, and even his parents, will bow down to him.

Whether out of ignorance or sheer pride, Joseph actually tells his brothers and father about his dreams. Even Jacob rebukes him for that. But curiously – or perhaps characteristically – Jacob appears to be otherwise blind to the feelings his other sons have towards Joseph. Here in today‟s text, he sends Joseph to check on them while they pasture the flocks. Joseph wears his coat, his special coat.

Whether it had sleeves or many colors, or both, this coat is the ultimate sign of Joseph‟s favorite-son status. Is it any wonder that when the brothers see Joseph coming, they conspire to kill him? Reuben, the oldest brother, persuades them otherwise. Instead they strip Joseph of his beautiful robe and throw him into an empty well. This is the first of many ups and downs that Joseph will experience in his life. Ultimately he will end up in a position of great power: “right hand man” to Pharaoh, the Egyptian king.

Joseph's brothers, meanwhile, deceive their father. They take Joseph's special coat and dip it in the blood of a slaughtered goat, and send the coat to Jacob. Their father, of course, draws the obvious conclusion that Joseph is dead, killed by a wild animal. If you‟ve been following this story in Genesis carefully, you might have noticed that Jacob is deceived by his sons just as he deceived his own elderly father. Family tradition, indeed. This is family dysfunction at its finest.

Long before modern psychologists and social scientist began to talk about family systems and dysfunctional family patterns, Scripture told the stories of parents whose own childhood experiences affected their children. Perhaps you‟ve heard that message from the Book of Numbers (14:18). The New Revised Standard Version reads: “The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.” The New International Version translation is even more disturbing: „The LORD punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.‟

That passage always upset me. Why would God punish children for the sins of their parents? What kind of God would do that? But what if we regard that verse not as a prescription, but as a description? Not as something that should be, but as something that simply is. Children do indeed pay for the sins of their parents, in small and large ways, as far back as Jacob and Joseph, and through until today.

And what is it that Jacob‟s sons have inherited from their father? A pattern of favoritism, obviously. The easy slide from jealousy, born of that favoritism, into hatred. And the willingness to turn to deception and violence as a result of that hatred. But where does hatred really come from?

C.S. Lewis says that hatred comes from fear: “Hatred is often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear. The more he fears, the more he will hate.” Theologian Karl Barth said that “fear is the anticipation of a supposedly certain defeat.” Surely that was what Joseph‟s brothers feared: the defeat of their own status as sons of the tribal leader, the loss of their positions of status and authority. They feared the loss of security, so they hated the one they believed could take it away.

Don‟t we do the same? Like Joseph‟s brothers, we have also inherited a legacy of turning fear into hatred. There is so much we come to fear over the course of a lifetime, so much

we suppose will defeat us, that we make life an exercise in securing ourselves against our own insecurities. And then we find ourselves awash in hate for the things, and the people, we fear: Immigrants are going to take our jobs. Government is going to take our money. Secular culture is going to take our children. People of other religions are going to take our freedom.

We fear letting go of the resources that might protect us against an uncertain future, and so we spend our money on fear rather than stewardship. In the name of security we refuse to love our enemies, so we make political decisions based on fear rather than the common good. Because we wish to be careful, we do not open our lives to strangers, fearing that they will take advantage of our hospitality.

Fear, and the hatred it produces, can shape a human life. It can distort human community. It can deny another person the humanity revealed by God in Christ, the one whose power was made perfect -- not by deception or violence or any other display of strength – but in weakness.

God came to us in Christ to break the power of fear, and the cycle of hatred and violence that it produces. “Be not afraid,” Jesus says, over and over. “Be not afraid, I am with you.” God came to us as a refugee baby, God died for us as a political prisoner, not in some sort of bargain with the devil, but to show us that God is love, and that love, forgiving love, is the only response that will ultimately end violence, and hatred, and fear.

It would have been nice if God had come to us as a magician, a superhuman incarnation who made all the pain of the world better with the wave of a wand. But God did not do that. Instead God came to us in the form of one who responded to violence with courageous non-violence, one who responded to hate with love, one who responded to a sentence of death with words of forgiveness.

God came to us in Christ so that we would have a choice: whether we stand with the powers of hatred and violence because we think they will keep us safe from all that we fear, or whether we stand with Jesus in a place of vulnerability, taking a stand against those powers.

To worship the Christ who was Jesus of Nazareth is not to worship a magic, wand-waving, incarnation who made everything better. It is to worship a real person who died a real death. It is to recognize that in this world there is much to fear, but to refuse to let the power of fear reign in your life, or in the life of your family, or in the life of your church, or in the life of your country. To worship Christ is to commit oneself to breaking the cycle of fear, hatred and violence that we have inherited.

Fortunately for us – and for him -- there was more than one tradition in Joseph‟s family. Though he began life as the clueless, full-of-himself, favorite son – and paid dearly for his brothers‟ jealousy – he ended life as a much wiser old man. Like his father before him, Joseph found a way to forgive his brothers, allowing the spirit of healing and new life to take hold in what had been a family characterized by hatred and violence.

But that‟s next week‟s story. This week we celebrate how God has done the same for us. In this meal we remember all that God did for us in Christ, breaking the cycle of fear and violence. We recommit ourselves to following his way, walking the path of courage and faith. We allow God to re-create in us the new life of Christ: the new life that not even death can end.


Mindi Welton-Mitchell, Worship Resources for August 7, 2011

Kathryn Schifferdecker, Commentary on Alternate First Reading, Lectionary for August 07, 2011.

Cynthia A. Jarvis, “The Shadow Side,” The Christian Century, July 17-30, 2002, p. 19

David Kalas, “The Land Where Our Fathers Had Lived” from Sermons on The First Readings, Series II, Cycle A.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, “Joseph‟s Coat” from “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” 1968.