When Life Is All About Us
Charles II was the King of England during the 1600s. According to historians, he was not a great king but he was very popular and well liked by the British people. Further, their appreciation for Charles was aided greatly by the fact that his brother who would succeed him as king and who was named James II was not very well liked at all which again only helped the people to feel even better about Charles.
The story is told that one day while Charles was king, he shared with his leadership that he wanted to go out on an excursion into the streets of London by himself, unprotected and unattended. Among those who spoke out against the idea was his brother James who worried for Charles and his safety.
Charles laughed when he heard of the concern that James’ had. “There is nothing to worry about at all,” he said. “Think about it. If someone harmed or killed me, they would be left with you as king. Don’t you see, I am perfectly safe!”.
I like this story because it gets at a salient point about life and our relationships with others. What it reminds us of is that sometimes we may know the honest to goodness truth of where we stand as it relates to the other people in our lives which may cast us in a very positive light. Yet, just because we have a right, clear perspective, that doesn’t mean that the wisest thing for us to do is to name our standing, flaunt it or live into it.
Humility and respect for others are critical attitudes for us to develop and I struggle with it as much as you do at times.
Evidently, Joseph struggled with this too. What we can say from the early scenes of Joseph’s story as found in Genesis is that he was Jacob’s favorite of his twelve sons. Joseph knew he was the favorite. And, he apparently flaunted his favored status in his relationship with his siblings.
Let me say that again. Joseph was the favorite of Jacob’s twelves sons though he wasn’t the first born. Second, Joseph knew he was the favorite. Third, in his teenager years, he struggled with giving into a desire to flaunt this favored status in his relationship with his siblings and this became a real Achilles heel for him.
Perhaps the story of Joseph’s famous coat is as much of an illustration of this as anything. You’ll remember that Genesis 37:3 tells us that Jacob, as a sign of his love for Joseph, gave him a special coat. We call it today Joseph’s coat of many colors because this is the description of the coat that many translations offer to us about this famous piece of clothing. However, what I have learned in my study for today is that modern scholarship suggests two different possible translations of the Hebrew in Genesis 37:3 with both of them speaking to this favored status that Joseph was all too happy to embrace. On the one hand, there is the traditional translation that Joseph’s coat was multi-colored. What made it unique and special was that in a day of basic, single colored clothes that were worn for very practical purposes, Joseph had designer threads that were more about the look than functionality and stood as a clear sign for him, his family and others that his father loved him best. Joseph was the only one of the twelve who had gotten a limited edition North Face Jacket under the Christmas tree – no one else had received one and he was happy to point that out.
On the other hand, some recent versions of Genesis 37, including the New Revised Standard Version, have translated the text to read not a “multi colored coat” but rather a “long coat”. Now, if the point is that Joseph got a full length mink coat not just a leather bomber jacket it is still a profound statement. Scholars tell us that the point being made with a full length coat that covered was that Joseph had been given a garment of the wealthy who were able to wear this type of covering because they didn’t have to work. If you were out in your fields watching over the sheep, you would not want to wear something so bulky or cumbersome. Rather, you would want something that gave you more freedom to get about and that was lite-weight for working. The line of thinking here is that the uniqueness of the long coat then was that it was Jacob’s way of saying to Joseph, “I am giving you this coat because I love you and I want you safe so you don’t have to work”. In turn, Joseph’s favoritism allowed him to stay home and watch tv all day and play Xbox while his brother’s worked. Thus the long coat was an ultimate sign of Jospeh’s favoritism and provided a license for him to be lazy!
What is worse is that Joseph knew it, Joseph bought into it and over time Joseph flaunted it even going so far as to tell his brothers on two occasions hat he had had a dream of a future day when they would bow down to him. Even further, Genesis 37 says that there were times when Joseph, the favored son, was the tattle tale letting their father know when his siblings were not doing what they should. Like Charles II, he knew he was the favorite and didn’t mind just coming out and saying it.
Part of Joseph’s early struggle was buying into a life that was all about him and that was incredibly self focused. Yes, his father was just as much to blame. And, yes, the text does tell us that Joseph was only 17 at the time and thus young and immature.
So too, it is important to say that his behavior did not excuse the decisions that his brothers ultimately made to fake his death and sell him to a traveling caravan in order to get him out of their lives and inflict pain on their father. But, it is to say that we must not miss Jospeh’s part in the family tragedy by getting totally focused on what his brothers or what his father did.
Joseph never seems interested in his brothers. He doesn’t seem to be very humble. He doesn’t seem aware that he has privileges that they do not. He doesn’t seem interested in developing a healthy family life of mutual sharing, shared responsibilities and a life that seeks the good of all. Eventually he gets to this place, but he wasn’t there in these early years.
Joseph was only 17 but many of us, at 17 and at 57, still struggle with a self-focused, self driven life. We struggle with living a shared life not a selfish one.
So, what are we to do? I think we must live remembering some very important truths that are connected to this early story of Jospeh.
First, we must live recognizing that it is very easy to become self absorbed. While we all can get down on and be to hard on ourselves, we can also just as easily become consumed with ourselves. And, we can do so without even realizing it. One of the most helpful disciplines we can develop is to constantly monitor our lives asking the question how much of my thinking, speaking and acting is driven by me?
Second, and building on this first point, we must allow our speech and our basic interaction with others to be a litmus test for us in this regard. Here is what I mean. We must ask ourselves how much of our conversation is focused on asking others how they are and what is going on in their lives? We must ask ourselves how often we follow up with a call, text or email to check in on another and some life crises or challenge they have told us about that they are dealing with? Third, we must ask ourselves how often we engage in conversations where we are more of a listener than a talker. If we find that we rarely ask others how they are doing, if we rarely follow up with others on their problems and if we are not good listeners then we are likely self-absorbed whether we want to admit it or not.
Again, look at Joseph’s story. There is not a single instance in this first chapter of Joseph showing interest in his brothers. At this stage of his life, his sole focus was on manipulating them to better himself. Our world is full of this today. And, the church is full of self absorbed people of faith. Yet, we can both gain support and gain the listening ear for ourselves while offering the same back to others.
Do you remember the old playground see-saws that many of us grew up with as children? Do you remember how one of the things that we all did was to try to adjust our bodies and distribute the weight so that the see-saws would be suspended in mid air because it was perfectly balanced? If you will recall this was hard work, it took adjusting and give and take. The moment things swung too much to one side or the other one person went straight to the ground and the other went straight up in the air. Balance was both hard to achieve, hard to maintain and easy to loose.
It was a good lesson for us as children and one we easily forget today. What we are looking for in life – in our relationship with family, friends and with God is balance that is the result of give and take, talking and listening, focus on us and focus on the other. The balance is hard to get and it is easy to loose. Joseph’s life, in the early stages, never had it and this was the proverbial straw that ultimately broke the camels back in his relationship with his siblings.
Finally, Joseph teach us that we must live with a desire to seek the good of all. Again, honesty is required here. Are our lives only primarily about getting what we want and what we think we need or are they an honest attempt to meet our needs while also seeking what is best for the others in our lives? Joseph could have cared less about his brothers and their well being. This was all about him. In a world of fancy coats, little work, favoritism and big dreams, Joseph flaunts it all while never asking his brother how he can help make their lives better too.
We have a tendency, again, often without recognizing it, to do the same.
One of the groups I participate with is the Laurens Rotary. Rotary has what is called a four way test. We recite it every time we meet. The idea is that everything we engage in should be able to pass this test before we give it our blessing. Here are the four questions – Is it the truth? Is it fair to all people? Will it build good will and better friendship? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
Now, that’s not from the Bible, but, I think those are biblical ideas. Further, I think those four questions would have gone a long way in the early days of Joseph’s relationship with his brothers. And, they will go a long way in our own attempts to live healthy, balanced lives with others too. Amen.