Genesis 40-42, Psalm 14, Matthew 14
It pays to be a dreamer
Genesis 40 – 42
When I was a newspaper reporter, I covered a major national story when the Governor of Tennessee Ray Blanchard was sentenced to prison for selling pardons to prisoners. It was amazing to think that if you paid enough money, you could have a family member or friend pardoned by the governor and allowed to walk to free. Pardons were for sale.
Governor Blanton was eventually caught. The story of the scandal was eventually made into a movie called Marie, starring Sissy Spacek in the title role of Marie Ragghianti, chairwoman of the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles, who refused to release prisoners.
When Governor Blanton was sent to a minimum security prison in Montgomery, Alabama, my editor sent me to cover the story. As I walked around the prison, I learned that every prisoner was given a job within the first two weeks of entering prison. Two weeks later, I called the prison and discovered that Governor Blanton had become the prison boiler room attendant. My story made the newspaper’s front page. Governor Blanton runs prison boiler room. It was the story of a great fall from grace.
In Genesis we read about an equally captivating story when Joseph undergoes an experience from riches to rags to more riches and more rags and finally to riches once again. Unlike Governor Blanton, who in 2012, the website RealClearPolitics named as one of the ten most corrupt politicians of all time, Jacob’s downward falls were not of his own doing.
Being the lastborn and the son of his father’s old age, Joseph was doted over until his brothers, who loathed him, sold him as a slave. Later, he was elevated and served faithfully in the house of Potiphar, a captain of the guards. Wrongly accused by Potiphar’s wife, Joseph was imprisoned.
Now in prison, he is charged with serving food to other prisoners. He becomes part of a long list of biblical figures who are imprisoned for having served God boldly – Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul and of course, Jesus.
Fortunately, Joseph had his father’s gift for dreaming as well as a rare ability to interpret dreams. Like Jacob, God spoke to Joseph in his dreams. When the king’s cupbearer and chief baker both had troubling dreams, Joseph approached each man about interpreting his dream. “Do not interpretations belong to God,” he asked, opening the story to a spiritual dimension.
After hearing the dreams, Joseph informed the king’s cupbearer that in three days he would receive his old job back and notified the chief baker that he would be executed in three days. Three days later, Pharaoh celebrated his birthday and granted forgiveness to his cup bearer, but hung his former chief baker.
Then we read this poignant line, “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.” (Gen. 40:23) How often do we come through an experience in life only to want to put it fully behind us, and we forget those who were left behind. In doing so, a great occasion for ministry is lost.
When life strips us of things that are precious – like family, friends, health, employment, success or community – we can rebuild our life and advance. It is one thing to rebuild our life and move forward, but it takes a special person to return to the place of their loss or suffering and help those in similar situations so that they, too, may be liberated.
Never forget that the opportunity for ministry is often to be found by returning to the place where we were cast down and wounded and where the angels ministered to us – whether it be from undergoing a divorce, suffering from a major illness, having lost a job or having experienced a major life setback.
There is ministerial gold to be uncovered when we stop and help others going through similar situations and bear witness that they, too, can discover hope and come through adversity. In addition, when we can return and help others in similar circumstances, our healing is completed and our loss is transformed from a liability to an asset, which we can value for the rest of our lives.
Two more years pass as Joseph lingers in prison all but forgotten. Fortunately, the chief cupbearer eventually recalls Joseph’s gift for interpreting dreams. “I remember my faults today,” he tells Pharaoh, relaying his experience in prison where Joseph interpreted his dream as well as the chief baker’s dream. Pharaoh, who has tried soothsayers and magicians, summons Joseph, who clearly has a great talent for interpreting dreams.
The Pharaoh tells Joseph that he is aware that Joseph can interpret dreams. “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” For a young man, Joseph displays incredible wisdom. Throughout most of my ministry, I have taken credit for many things that were God’s doing and not my own. Creating The Bible Challenge was the first time when I realized that I had nothing to do with something that God did. God led every step of the way. I passively assisted.
Real ministry occurs when we listen to God nudging us quietly from within and let God inspire us to action. God deserves the credit for the good things that occur through our ministry. If our services has any lasting value, it is because it was God’s doing in the first place. Joseph understands this. “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”
So, Joseph interprets the dream, predicts a seven year famine and notes that God is warning Pharaoh to set aside part of the annual harvest for each of the next seven years to prepare for the lean years to come. It must have seemed like a major setback to the economy to consider this. Credit, however, must be given to Pharaoh for recognizing Joseph’s wisdom and seeing that God’s spirit was with him. So, Pharaoh appointed Joseph to serve as his right hand man.
Removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh places it on Joseph’s hand. Could this be the reason why the story of Judah and Tamar, when Judah took off his signet ring as a pledge to Tamar in order that he might sleep with her? (Gen. 38:18), was inserted in chapter 38? It seems too coincidental. Here the giving of the ring serves a far profounder role. It serves as a covenant between the Pharaoh and Joseph, and Joseph is now empowered to oversee Egypt’s economy.
Joseph is given a wife, wealth and power. It is a massive responsibility. Seven years later, a famine occurs just as Joseph had predicted. Lacking sufficient food, Joseph’s brothers come to him seeking food assistance. Joseph’s brothers “bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground,” just as God had foretold to Joseph years earlier in a dream.
After imprisoning them for three days, Joseph grants them freedom because he notes, “…for I fear God.” (Gen. 42:18) Here is a man of enormous wisdom and restraint, because he listens each day to God and serves one of much higher authority than even Pharaoh. He serves Yahweh – the God of Israel.
Rueben, who never wanted to kill Joseph, notes, “Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen.” (Gen. 42:21) Clearly, we see how callous his brothers had been, but there is hope among them in the character of Ruben.
Overhearing their conversation, Jesus who apparently no longer bears hatred for what his brothers had done to him, must “turn away from them” and weep. (Gen. 42:24) It is reminiscent of Jesus weeping upon hearing that his close friend Lazarus had died. (John 11:35) Like Jesus, Joseph is extremely strong, but his heart is easily touched. It is a model of godly leadership.
There are two things to pay close attention to in Psalm 14. First, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’” (Ps. 14:1) We risk our own peril to deny the existence of a power higher than ourselves. Have we created ourselves? Did any of us set the universe in motion? Despite human evolution and remarkable scientific discoveries, humans will never discover that we created the universe or set the planets in motion. A higher sovereign power has done all of this.
Failure to acknowledge this, often leads to “corrupt” and “abominable deeds,” if we are the measure of all things and are not held accountable to a higher power. The famous Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn notes that the line between good and evil runs straight through each of us. When we acknowledge God and make efforts to know and serve God, God draws forth the goodness within us and multiplies it and helps to diminish the evil desires that also reside within us.
We are wise to note this and to ask, how can I bring my life into alignment with God and the sovereign order of the universe, rather than spend my life swimming against the current, making little progress and allowing life to be more challenging and less fulfilling than it should be?
Second, we hear what Roman Catholic theologians call God’s “preferential concern for the poor,” when we read, “You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.” (Ps. 14:6) Throughout the Bible we find one of the major themes is that God has a huge heart for the poor, and those who serve God have a similar heart.
The heart that God invites us to cultivate is a heart for those who are financially poor as well as those who are poor in spirit, run down by life, suffering from illness, loss, alienation, stress or loneliness. God’s desire is to transform each of us into a person with a huge heart for the poor.
John was a truth-teller, and life is not always easy for truth-tellers, especially when they speak out against powerful people such as Herod Antipas. Antipas came to the throne after his father, King Herod the Great, died a painful death in 4 B.C. While Herod did much good for the Jews and peace prevailed during almost all of the 37 years that he rule, he was paranoid and killed anyone who threatened him.
Antipas was not Herod’s first choice to succeed him. That choice fell to his other sons, Aristobulus and Alexander, who he later had executed. When Antipater, Herod’s eldest son was convicted of trying to poison him, Herod turned to Antipas to succeed him. Unlike his father who was king, Antipas served as “tetrarch,” and ruled over only a quarter of the land that his father had governed. During his reign Antipas oversaw building projects in Sepphoris and his capital on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, which he named Tiberius, in honor of his patron.
Problems occurred, however, after Antipas divorced his first wife Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea, in favor of Herodias, who had formerly been married to his half-brother Herod Philip I. Antipas had met Herodias during a visit to Rome. The two fell in love and agreed to marry after Herod Antipas had divorced his wife.
When Antipas’ wife, Aretas, learned of the plan, she asked for permission to travel to the frontier and there she was escorted in safety to her father. Once under her father’s protection, she could declare war on her husband. Meanwhile, John the Baptist began his ministry at the River Jordan, which was located on the western edge of Antipas’ territory.
John boldly challenged Antipas’s marriage for violating Jewish law, angering both Antipas and his new wife. The marriage was also incestuous, as Herodias was Antipas’ niece. Fearful that John’s disciples might riot, if he executed John, Antipas was content to let John rot in jail. But at a dinner party Herod threw, Salome, Herod and Herodias’ daughter danced and delighted her father, who promised her any wish that she desired, up to half of his kingdom.
She consulted her mother and returned with the answer, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” (Matt. 14:8) While other gospels tell us that Herod grieved, because he liked John the Baptist, Matthew omits this. Herod, like a weak politician who is unable to admit publically that he has made a mistake, had Salome’s request carried out.
The result is a scene straight out of a Shakespearean tragedy. Countless artists have depicted this gruesome story, capturing the depths of human evil and depravity. John’s disciples immediately informed Jesus, who realized that the forces of evil are plentiful, potent and nearby. Jesus, too, will encounter raw evil.
When Jesus heard the tragic news, he was deeply moved and sought to be alone to contemplate his loss. Crowds, however, followed him. Un-phased by their presence, Jesus recognized their suffering for many had followed him in hopes of being healed or fed by the Spirit of God.
The Bible tells us that Jesus had “compassion,” which in ancient Greek is translated as “splagchnzomai,” which literally means to have one’s bowels twisted.” It is a powerful translation. When we see scenes of starving children on television or see an atrocity occur in a movie, our gut is literally wrenched. This is splagchnzomai, which is to experience profound compassion as Jesus did. So, Jesus, who had come away for solitude, peace and reflection, “cured their sick.”
At evening time, his followers encouraged him to send the crowd away to buy food for themselves. Jesus said to them, “…you give them something to eat.” They quickly replied that they had only five loaves and two fish among them to share with an enormous crowd. Jesus took their meager offering, held it up to God, blessed it and a miracle occurred.
What exactly occurred, we do not know. We are told that there were 12 baskets full of empty pieces or a basket enough for each disciple or a basket for each tribe of Israel. Clearly, there is symbolism here. What matters is that something highly unusual took place. There are at least two explanations.
The first is that the bread and fish miraculously multiplied and grew into a huge amount which was more than capable to satisfy the needs of a massive crowd. Matthew tells us that “five thousand men” were present. It was not customary in that ancient culture to count women and children. They simply did not matter as much. Hence, scholars estimate that 15,000 or more persons were present and fed.
With God, all things are possible. (Mark 10:27) If God created the universe and set all things in motion and Jesus was God incarnate, fully-human and fully-divine, then feeding 15,000 people with five fish and two loaves was but a small task for God. This explanation seems fully justifiable and believable to me. After all, Jesus has cleansed lepers, resurrected dead children, healed the blind and mute and let the lame to walk. Why should this surprise us?
Another explanation offered is that no wise person in the ancient Near East would travel far without carrying some provisions. Most men and women would carry some dried fish and flatbread inside their tunic, just as we might pack a sandwich, fill a lunchbox or take a cooler full of food with us to eat later in the day. Looking around, however, and seeing a sea of people, many persons might have feared that if they shared their meager resources, then they might only receive a portion of what they had brought with them. They suffered from was a mentality of scarcity, rather than a spirit of abundance.
By lifting up the five loaves and two fish, as if it were enough, and offering them to God with a spirit of generosity and thanksgiving, the crowd was transformed from a selfish demeanor to one of blessed thankfulness. Each person began to open up their tunic and pull forth what he or she had secretly been keeping for him or herself. A feast soon ensued.
Preacher Fred Craddock tells a real life story, where his plane was delayed for several hours in a frozen airport during a winter in storm. When the passengers were finally allowed to enter the plane, the stewardess apologized for the great delay and announced that there would be no warm meal served on the plane, due to a mechanical problem. Noises of disapproval filled the airplane cabin from disgruntled passengers.
Then she announced, “But do not worry. There is a man in row five with a large bag of potato chips and a woman in row seven with a dozen oranges. A young man in row nine has a large hoagie, and a couple in the rear of the plane have a cheese cake. If you all begin to share what you have, we will be fine.” Caught completely by surprise and captured by the spirit of this enterprising and unflappable stewardess, each person began to share what they had purchased and brought aboard.
Craddock says that the isolated and cantankerous group of delayed passengers was suddenly transformed into a fiesta-like atmosphere, where strangers quickly became friends, introductions were made, generosity overflowed and lo and behold there was more than enough to satisfy everyone. It was, he notes, “just like Jesus feeding the five thousand with a few loaves and fishes.”
Which explanation is correct? Did the fish and loaves miraculously multiply or did the crowd catch the spirit of abundance and begin to share. Like the ancient Jews, I prefer to believe that both are true and plausible. With God surely all things are possible. Loaves and fish can be multiplied. I believe in miracles, and believing in miracles makes all the difference in how we see the world before us.
I also believe in reality. There are times when miracles do not occur, but I also have witnessed things occurring and the changing of human spirits in such dramatic ways that things that I never thought would happen in my lifetime have occurred. Such a time was when the Berlin Wall was torn down, but I have seen it as well in small, but powerful occasions among family, friends and the church members. The key is to live a life based on a spirit of generosity and not allow ourselves to become captive to a mentality of scarcity, which diminishes us as human beings and limits our potential for joyful, godly living and faithful service to others.
Jesus then walks on water, which we will address later in future discussion. Peter manifests a failure of nerve, but Jesus reaches out and takes hold of him, never upbraiding him. The key line here is, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matt. 14: 27) As John Claypool used to say, “We are never less loving than when we are most afraid, nor never more loving than when we are least afraid.” When we have faith in God, we are free to venture forth in love.
God respects the risks that we take to follow Jesus and never punishes us for trying, even when our faith falters. Finally, more people are healed, even by touching the fringe of Jesus’ garment. Truly, we discover in God a power for healing and wholeness to be found nowhere else on earth.
“Can we find anyone else like this – one in whom is the spirit of God.” (Gen. 41:38)
“…you give them something to eat.” (Matt. 14:16)
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matt. 14: 27)
“You of little faith, why did you doubt.” (Matt. 14:31)
Life-changing words are God’s Words. Don’t substitute reading a Bible commentary or a book about the Bible or how the Bible was put together or a book on spirituality or my writings here with actually reading the Bible each day. God’s Word is the deepest well from which we can drink and discover the living waters of life.
Where do you feel that your faith is failing you? Are you afraid to step out of the steady boat of life and take a few steps towards Jesus? In what ways is God inviting you to move from a mentality of scarcity to a spirit of abundance?
Gracious, Holy and Ever-Generous God, you have created all things and entrusted much into our hands. Help us to hold all things, gently and lightly in an open hand, knowing that in time all things shall be taken from us. Remind us that the deepest joy that we can discover now is to share what we have been given with others so that the poor and the needy, those who are alone or suffer, might receive joy and comfort today. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie