Some people live their whole lives in the same hometown, marry the person next door, and work in the family business. Not much changes in their lives from year to year. Joseph is not one of those people. He has more ups and downs in a month than most people ever experience. He moves from being the favorite child in a prosperous family to being a frightened slave, to becoming the overseer of a wealthy house. Then his life changes again, and he becomes unjustly imprisoned. After this episode, (spoiler alert) we know his life will change yet again.
Read the scripture passage here.
Read the Working Preacher commentary by Dr. Jacq Lapsley here.
Joseph experiences great injustice, first from his brothers and then from his Egyptian master. His story highlights how little control enslaved people have over their own lives, even when they’re highly regarded. Things change fast when you have no say over your life. The same is true for low wage workers in our culture, who are buffeted by draconian corporate policies, stressed out bosses and financial worry. It also evokes the lives of people who are unjustly accused, and don’t have the resources to defend themselves.
Twice, the story reassures us that God causes Joseph’s work to prosper. God is with Joseph in such powerful ways that the people around him notice that favor, and give him greater freedom, which also benefits them.
The story is long on plot and short on character development, as soap operas are, so we don’t know how Joseph reacts to the dramatic changes in his life. Is he confident of God’s presence? In despair? Bitter? Full of questions?
The sermon might consider the Joseph figures in our lives – people unjustly accused or imprisoned. It’s easy to forget about them when they’re out of sight. The sermon might look at how we are like Potiphar, in hurrying to judge and then forgetting about people.
Or the sermon might explore how we cope when the world seems to be against us. What spiritual skills do we use? When stress piles up, and our circumstances are painful, what experiences and strengths do we draw on? Where did we learn them? Or what can we develop in ourselves to cope when life moves us up and down, like Joseph?
The sermon might also look at what happens in our spirits when God seems to be an underachiever (to use Woody Allen’s great line.) God is with Joseph all the time, but it’s not always apparent. When does God seem to be underachieving in our lives? How do we react?
Or the sermon might look at external appearances, and how we judge each other. Joseph looks great as the favorite son of his father’s house, in his special robe, and then not so special as a newly enslaved person, at the mercy of foreign traders. He’s appealing when he’s the hot young steward of the household, and then not so great as a prisoner. All the while, he’s the same person, even though he looks different on the outside.
Where are your thoughts taking you this week? We would love to continue the conversation in the comments section below.
Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church. She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City. The image above is from the Vanderbilt Library of Art in the Christian Tradition. You can learn more here.
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