When Grief Goes Sideways
Some time ago, Annie was doing this conversation series with her congregation called “Burgers and Big Questions.” And in one of them, the topic was about family dysfunction--kind of a dive into how we will sometimes look to the Bible for advice on having a harmonious and happy family, but looking to see if the Bible had any good examples of functional, happy families. I still laugh about it, because the most supportive, loving, non-dysfunctional family in the Bible is that of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel! Yes, they’re terrible people, but they 100% have each other’s backs in all things.
This is not the case with the family of the promise, Jacob and his twelve sons.
See, Jacob was never good at hiding the fact that he had a favorite. Joseph, the son of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel, went on to be his favorite son. And it wasn’t just a nudge nudge favorite of always getting the last cookie, or getting the regular “yes” to his requests where his brothers too frequently got “no.” It was naked favoritism. The kind that Jacob would not be able to deny. And that grating favoritism shows up again and again in Joseph’s early story.
First there’s this robe. Now, we may know it as the “coat of many colors,” but whatever you call it it’s a super fancy robe. Like, “oh I can’t help you milk the goats today Judah, it might stain my robe” fancy. And he’s the only one to get a robe like that. Then, he has these dreams where the symbolism of him ruling over his brothers is obvious--his brother’s sheaves of wheat bowing down to his sheave of wheat, or eleven stars bowing down to his star. And it’s pretty obvious he hasn’t been taught tact by his doting father, because he just blurts these dreams to his brothers and then gets confused when they’re mad about it. And to top it all off, he’s a little snitch. Daddy’s little favorite tattles on the brothers for not grazing the herds properly.
Oh, and he’s a teenager. So that definitely makes everything better.
But as awful and annoying as he was, this story took a very quick and very dark turn when he went looking for his brothers somewhere around Dothan. Rather than pulling some prank to embarrass him or getting into a fight, the brothers saw him coming and immediately started plotting to kill him.
And that might seem like an extreme response. Joseph was annoying, and he was the favorite, but he was a teenager. Teenagers aren’t known for their incredible tact, their reserved approach to being given authority, or even their modesty about receiving attention. I remember being a teenager; these things don’t come naturally. But the brothers plot a terrible thing for Joseph, and it’s important for us to ask the question why? These brothers, all older than Joseph and surely at least dimly aware that Joseph, as a teenager, would eventually grow out of his immaturity, should have acted more responsibly. Why did they go to such a dark place?
It has to do with grief. See, they had lived every day since Joseph was born with the acute awareness that Jacob simply loved Joseph more. And more than anything, we all want the love of our parents. It’s natural. It’s right. But when Jacob very clearly didn’t give these brothers the love they wanted, and poured it all instead on Joseph, it created resentment. And they couldn’t take that resentment, anger, and grief out on Jacob because he was their father. So instead, that anger and grief came out sideways. Joseph was a much easier target. He was, in a way, a lightning rod for the brothers’ resentment of their father’s favoritism.
It’s a thing we all do, really. When “the thing” that is really bothering us is too big to approach, too complex to confront, to intimidating to call out, that grief goes somewhere. And most of the time, it finds a convenient scapegoat. I think especially of the pandemic. So much has changed. So many things that we love and want are being cancelled, put on hold, or deeply disrupted because of this virus. Everything from concerts to church services are being thrown out of their normal places by this disease. But you and I are not immunologists. We’re not doctors or pharmacologists. We can’t do anything to make this disease go away. But just like for Joseph’s brothers, the grief is still there. So the grief has to go somewhere.
So what happens? We are all seeing the effects of that grief coming out sideways. Think about how angry everyone is. Someone has to be blamed for everything, whether it’s teachers speaking against returning to in-person classrooms; or people refusing to wear masks; or foreigners bringing the disease to our shores; or governors shutting things down. The grief and anger--the “big feelings”--have to go somewhere, and since we can’t direct them at a disease they end up being thrown at our neighbors. Just like how Joseph’s brothers had such big feelings about their own father, but ended up throwing them at Joseph instead.
But when those feelings come out sideways, they end up hurting people. Throwing our grief and anger at the grocery store clerk who asks us to comply with the store’s mask rule only causes pain. Venting our big feelings on parents who need their kids to go to school brings in only more hurt and grief and anger. When feelings come out sideways rather than going at “the thing” that’s causing them to begin with, it only multiplies the harm.
So we are called to be better. That doesn’t mean we’re called as Christians to simply not have those big feelings; instead it means that as Christians we are empowered by the Spirit to reflect on what the real “thing” is that is causing those big feelings, and point our grief and anger at that instead of convenient scapegoats around “the thing.” We’re called by Jesus to get out of the comfort of the boat that lets us blame other people, and step out onto the choppy water that acknowledges what grieves us may be bigger than we can actually handle--but Jesus will catch us nonetheless.
Let’s not be like Joseph’s brothers, scapegoating peripheral people so we don’t have to face the real thing that’s hurting us. Let’s live with the assumption that basically everyone is just trying their best, doing what they can to do the most good as far as they can see it. Let’s leave the comfort of the boat where straw men and caricatures rule our way of relating to each other, and take Jesus’ hand on the waves where people are deep and complex and real.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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