Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Time Rice wrote the successful musical, ‘Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat’. It is the ancient story of Jacob (who became Israel), Joseph and their family as told through the song and a modern interpretation. The biblical story is a maze of convoluted family interactions that captures the nuances and challenges of life together. There is the doting father who holds Joseph as the favourite son and lavishes him with the precious coloured coat. His other sons feel the pain of rejection or being secondary in the familial relationship. They get the harder work, the prejudice and feel envy. This envy and hatred towards their brother is exacerbated when he exhibits sheer arrogance and egotistical behaviour. He flaunts his favoured status before them. He has a unique talent in dreaming and interpreting dreams, although it comes across early as mere arrogance and patronising put-downs towards his brothers. He elevates himself above them and they feel increasing anger and hatred.
At an opportune time, the brothers were working away from home and Joseph is sent to check up that all is well. His brothers saw him coming and plotted to kill him, though the oldest brother intervened and spared his life. They locked him away and sold him to slave-traders heading for Egypt. They tricked their father by dipping the coat in goat’s blood and returning it to their father who believed his beloved son to have been killed by a wild animal. Life went on.
In Egypt, Joseph’s life spiralled down from comfortable favouritism at home to being imprisoned on false charges. Life was grim. Through his downslide and impoverishment, Joseph seems to have metamorphosed from arrogant, egotistical boy with affectations, to a more humble, vulnerable maturing young man who realised he wasn’t so great after all.
It was his ability to interpret dreams that finally got him out of prison when Pharaoh had a troubling dream. Joseph was able to tell the Pharaoh that famine was coming; after 7 good years there would be 7 bad years. Pharaoh put him in charge of the program to store enough food for the hard times. When the bad times arrived, so did his brothers – eventually. They like many others came to Egypt in search of food. Joseph recognised them and played with them. He challenged them, tricked them, tested them and caused not a small amount of grief for them and their father. Joseph seems to have had a mixture of anger and vengeance, along with a desire to see who these men had become. Ultimately, he realised that they were different, and they were his brothers and he yearned to be reunited. He revealed who he was and allayed their fears when they thought he was going to destroy them. There was reconciliation and he brought his family to Egypt to save them from the famine. (This story will be re-visited by Matthew in the New Testament when he tells of another Joseph hearing God through dreams at Jesus conception and birth and then travels to Egypt with his family to save them).
This convoluted story features all the stuff of life. Most families and communities can identify with some elements of this tale – favouritism, envy, arrogance, egotism, conflict, alienation and separation, hatred, violence, reconciliation, healing, trust, forgiveness… This is reality, our reality. The story of Joseph as he moves through arrogant egotism and ambition into vulnerable humility and the recognition that he isn’t able to save himself or do what he thinks he can, is the journey of life into maturity. We move into a place where our egos are squashed down, and we become humble and open to the world around and other people as equals. We begin to live with a different outlook and embrace paradox and mystery – especially the ultimate mystery revealed in the Divine.
It is through this journey that Joseph begins to trust and be trustworthy. Whilst he tests and taunts his brothers, he is ultimately driven to reconciliation through forgiveness. There is healing within this broken, divided family. Throughout the story God seems to move in the background using what happens to move things forward. Joseph and Jacob, who becomes Israel, ultimately understand God’s grace through their story. God does not make it all happen but works with people and their choices, revealing love, life and grace within their openness. Joseph cannot hear God’s true voice until he is humble enough to recognise he isn’t ‘God’ or even god-like, until he recognises his own dependence.
This story invites us into a place to ponder our own lives, the choices we make and our journey into a place where we become more humble, vulnerable, and open to grace and love. In this place we begin to see and feel what is before us – the people, the wonders, the mystery. We gaze upon the mystery and wonder of God and see glimpses in the shadows of this mysterious hand of grace that holds us and urges us through possibility and potential – even when we resist and choose alternately.
In the Gospel reading this week (Luke 6:27-38), Jesus continues to teach the disciples a most profound and impossible ethic grounded in love rather than hatred and violence. He invokes an ethic of love towards enemy and doing good to those who oppose us. The centre-piece of his teaching is the ‘Golden Rule’: ‘Do unto others what you would have them do to you.’ This classic rule appears in similar variants amongst most religions in the world and through history. We are invited to consider life from another person’s perspective and understand why they do or believe what they do, what makes ‘them, them.’ We are to act out of the perspective that we are all humans with our own hang-ups, strengths and weakness, prejudices… and respond in love that builds up rather than divides and breaks down. This is difficult!!
When we experience someone who challenges us at every point, love is difficult to conjure up – revenge, putting them in their place… are far more real in our attitude. This is the story of Joseph’s brothers and then Joseph towards them. When we have experienced violence and abuse, then forgiveness and love are virtually impossible. How do we understand someone who engages in sexual abuse or violence towards us? Sometimes forgiveness simply isn’t possible as there is no remorse or acceptance of responsibility. This is the messy place we sometimes inhabit and have to live through.
Jesus’ words are certainly a very challenging way forward for our world but until we can grasp our need for an alternative way to the spiralling violence of revenge, abuse of power, warfare, hatred, fear, exclusiveness and all the ways people naturally respond to others who are different or do us wrong, nothing will change. We will continue to spiral around violence as the means of achieving an end to violence and conflict!!??
Jesus invites us into a great reversal that sees one another from a different perspective and one that will move us toward forgiveness, reconciliation and healing. It requires humility, putting ego aside and growing more deeply into love and the mystery of God!