Matthew 14: 22-33; Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 “The Logic of Hatred”
Caitlin Trussell on August 3, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver
[sermon follows the Bible readings of Genesis and Matthew]
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3Now Israel [aka Jacob] loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
12Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13And Israel [aka Jacob] said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” 14So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, 15and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16“I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.'” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 21But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” — that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
25Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. 28When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
Matthew 14:22-33 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
A few years ago, before I started seminary, a friend of mine and I thought it would be fun to teach a class in Lent. We picked a book and spread it out over the Wednesdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter. It was John Ortberg’s book, “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.” It worked because it was set up to teach over six weeks. That right there was have the curriculum battle already won. It also worked because Lent is a time of reflection. The gist of the book is to consider how to take faith out for a spin, or a walk on water if-you-will, and see what Jesus will reveal about you and your faith in the midst of it all. A good time was had by some.
In the 10 or so years since then, I’ve continued to think about faith and life and the idea of taking faith out for a spin. You can see how this metaphor works in combination with the Gospel text. Peter climbs out of the boat during a storm, panics, starts to sink, and Jesus reaches out and pulls him up from the water.
This story of Christ’s command, Peter’s response, and his failed attempt at water-walking without Jesus is one that lends itself quickly to the metaphor spun out by Pastor Ortberg. But I’d like to throw a line under the metaphor a bit and fish out one of the assumptions at work. Specifically hooking an assumption about how we read the text as preparation for metaphorical water walking. This assumption has to do with agency.
Agency is one way of thinking about whether a person is able to assert themselves into a situation and act in the world. Peter is living out of what tends to be interpreted as his own agency. Meaning that he sees Jesus walking on the water, he wants to join Jesus on the water, so he asks Jesus to command him onto the water. Peter’s agency results in action in the world.
In the West, agency is a big deal because it often means that we have choices and can make decisions that affect our lives. It is common to hear assumptions of agency in the language that we use in the West.
Joseph’s story is a counter-example to the popular reading of Peter. Joseph’s brothers strip him of his agency as they strip his coat off of his shoulders. The brothers’ frustration and jealousy boil over into a plan that first hopes to leave Joseph for dead, then switches to leave him in a pit, and finally ends up with Joseph sold into slavery and on his way to Egypt. There is no choice, no action, no chance for Joseph to exercise agency in this situation.
If we look closely at the verse numbers we heard today, we can also see that there are verses in the middle of the story that we don’t get to read or hear. Old Testament scholar Cameron Howard points out that these missing verses, “highlight the escalating animosity between Joseph and his brothers.” Three times the brothers hate Joseph – first because:
Jacob loves him the most; then they hate Joseph “even more” because he has special dreams, and yet again they hate Joseph “even more because of his dreams and his words”. He predicts his whole family will one day bow to him, and he is obnoxiously delighted to report that information. Even Jacob takes Joseph to task for this hubris.
In the missing verses, Howard highlights, “Joseph’s culpability in the growing rift in his relationship with his brothers; the dysfunction in Joseph’s family stems not from any one source, but rather from the brokenness of all parties.”
It’s the “brokenness of all parties” in Dr. Howard’s comments that caught my attention. In part I’m thinking about the “brokenness of all parties” because there is a lot going on in the world that begs not only our attention but begs us to be part of constructive conversation and action – not the least of which is the current war in Israel and Palestine. A crisis where there is a lot of talk about who’s right and who’s wrong; a lot of hatred disguised as logic – and children, CHILDREN, are being put in and caught in the crosshairs. I’m thinking of “brokenness of all parties” because this kind of language is part of public rhetoric when we want to neutralize culpability, when we want to level the playing field in such a way so we don’t have to decide who might really be in the wrong. We use the statement that “we’re all broken” and suddenly we excuse ourselves from taking a stand.
Joseph’s brothers hate Joseph because he is arrogant and obnoxious. Their hate fuels a plan to commit murder that is then downgraded by an enterprising brother into the lesser charge of human trafficking…wait…what?! It is a “brokenness of both parties” that culminates in an 11 against 1 forced trip to Egypt? The danger here is that pretty soon someone is going to say that Joseph deserves it. Many of us will look the other way as the caravan moves on down the road, believing that Joseph is a free agent who played his agency right into his own enslavement.
It is fair to say that our hatreds get tangled into our thinking. The danger is when we start justifying our hatred as reasonable. Hatred hides itself inside of something we now call logic. It’s likely that our own hatreds disguised as logic aren’t as obvious as Joseph’s brothers. But the effects of justifying our logical hatred can be just as devastating – in our own families and half-way around the world.
Peter has a moment in that boat when he wants to join Jesus on the water. His reasons are not given. Peter’s reasons are often imagined by Biblical readers as noble – just look how much Peter wants to be close to Jesus. But Peter’s reasons could just as easily be fueled by arrogance or showmanship. He says to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Peter ties his own water-walking ambition to a word of faith and he sinks like a stone.
The word of faith we proclaim can so quickly attach itself to our own plans, ambitions, and hatreds. Effectively twisting faith to justify our own ends. It is a common enough occurrence that many people on the outside of faith want no part of it. Thankfully, time-and-again, Jesus continues to reach through the storm, dragging us toward life as we flail around to find footing. Jesus secures us through a community of the cross, a group of people who in various ways cry out with Peter, “Lord, save me!” And, across the spectrum of our faith and doubt, Jesus saves…
 John Ortberg. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001). http://www.johnortberg.com/books/if-you-want-to-walk-on-water-youve-got-to-get-out-of-the-boat-participants-guide-with-dvd/
 Please note that this is a loose definition complicated by all the concepts hanging around the edges of agency such as automony, free-will, theological anthropology, ontology, bondage of the will, etc.
 The concept of agency holds whether it means Western thought of the 21st century or the Wild, Wild, American West.
 Cameron B.R. Howard. Commentary on Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 at Luther Seminary’s WorkingPreacher.org for August, 3, 2014. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2167