A friend was telling me about his remarkable triumph over the temptations that accompanied his 30something decade the other day. He reminded me of a series of messages I offered in 2007. Here is an adaptation of one of them I thought might be useful to some of you facing temptations to your fidelity, like Joseph faced in Genesis 39, when he might have been in his thirties….
The Inquirer interviewed Daniel Brook at El Vez, up on 13th St on September 2 about his new book called The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All-America. As they were interviewing, they observed a lot of happy, young professionals enjoying happy hour. Daniel’s take on them? — “They won’t be happy for long.” In his view, the small luxuries, from sangria to Ikea, may come cheap these days, but the ballooning costs of education, housing and health care will soon drive these young people into making the bargain with corporate America they wish they did not have to make. Daniel Brook says, and I imagine you agree, that a great many 20 and 30somethings are in the process of selling out, right now. If you just look at everyone’s school debt or at the inequity of salaries between teachers/social workers and lawyers/big pharma workers, it is so striking, who can consider teaching or doing social work or doing anything that isn’t about surviving? Who can live in Center City unless you go for the bucks? In 1970 a beginner lawyer made $2000 more than a beginner teacher. Now the salary gap is $100,000. The corporate takeover of America under the business-friendly policies of Clinton and Bush, especially, is making freedom to choose impossible if you want to have a family and live in a decent house. In some places, like San Francisco or Manhattan there is no middle class at all anymore, and everyone thinks this is normal.
Daniel Brook is talking about teaching, social work, writing for the City Paper or creating an arts cooperative as occupations for people who want to care. He’s lamenting that such a choice is unaffordable. As Jesus-followers, we’re talking about a life that is not merely a matter of choosing a place in the economic order of things. I’m talking about Christians who receive basic directives like “love your neighbor as yourself” and hear demanding teaching like “If you have done it for the least of these, you have done it to me.” Our choice is not just about how big a house we can afford; we have a moral imperative that is stronger than that impulse; the compulsion to love is bred into us. We can’t help but care, if we are following Jesus. But we face the same social circumstances as everyone else. Will we sell Jesus out for a seat at the economic table? I think that is the big question for 30somethings as they continue on the spiritual journey; and as we’ll see, the answer doesn’t just boil down just to economics, but answering might largely take place in that arena.
Jesus describes the spiritual challenge of the 30s with a picture that every 29-year-old might want to display somewhere in her house. Remember what he said in the parable of the sower? “The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the person who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.” Put up a picture of a believer getting choked with worry and deceit. That’s the threat of the 30’s.
Our friend Joseph fell into quite a thorn patch, didn’t he? I am saying he is about thirty by the time we get to the part of the story we’re looking at. That gives him a few years to rise up in the ranks of Potiphar’s employees and become the head of his household. But even if he is not quite thirty, he is facing what 30somethings often face. (And if we haven’t gotten over the roadblock we typically face in our thirties, if there is some arrested spiritual development, it is the roadblocks any of us could face. There are striking parallels between him and us.
Joseph, the boy who had the great coat and the pampered place in his family is now a slave in Egypt. 30somethings around here may have grown up in wealthy, pampered environment, as well — at least as far as the U.S. compares to other countries. Now, many are often as good as slaves. They have first-rung jobs; they are in debt; they are working long hours under threat of dire consequences; they get two weeks vacation and no job security; if they are married they may have a couple of kids tying them down to the house with both parents working to stay afloat.
Nevertheless, Joseph, the youth who had his splendid dreams, seemed full of potential but ended up a slave, is still very capable. Everything he touches prospers and his boss has notices how he makes things better. Likewise, the 30somethings we all know are generally more capable than they used to be. They learned from being in their 20’s; maybe they went to school; they have at least been in the school of hard knocks; they have survived. They are bearing the first fruits of coming into their fullness as the person they were meant to be. This fruit will ripen for the next 20 years or so and feed people. It is no surprise that Jesus was a 30something when he died. He was just ready to do what he was sent to do and did it as soon as he could.
So I am mainly talking about the roadblocks to faith that are presented to capable slaves. The roadblock to gaining faith, if you have passed the 30 mark, is often insurmountable, since most people are fully in thrall to some master by then. The master might just be a philosophy, or one’s own entrenched habits of the heart, maybe an addiction, or it may be an actual master, like the job. In my cell last night we named the people who weren’t there because of school, but mainly because of the job – and the absentees assumed that was normal. The job was unadaptable, but their expression of faith was easily pushed to the margins — they didn’t even have a problem with it. So although there are 30somethings who do not fit this description, I think most do and all are going to have their fidelity tested.
For people who have faith, I am still talking about the unfortunate circumstance of basically being a capable slave, caught in some demand that needs to be satisfied and facing serious consequences if the master who is usurping the place of God is not obeyed. Like never before, perhaps, we face the thorns in our thirties. The main roadblock for Joseph is obvious, he literally belongs to someone else! For most of us, it could be more about belonging to one’s employer. Or it could be about belonging to someone else you love. There are serious roadblocks to being faithful to God and doing what God has given you to be and do.
I think Joseph is a brilliant example of what one must do to get beyond the roadblock. His response boils down to two basic questions we will all have to answer, “Do you honor who you are?” And “Will you risk the wrath of the master to serve God?”
Joseph was sold to Ishmaelite traders who passed by Dothan on their way to Egypt. They showed up just in time for Judah and his brothers to flag them down. The boys must have shouted over the braying of the camels, “Hey what do you say about buying this fine potential slave we have in a pit over here? We think you’ll find him dreamy, just like we do.”
It is very possible that the main salesman, Judah, is a 30something, or nigh on to it, when he makes the sale. Judah spent his twenties being a jealous, rapacious youth. By this time, he is hardening into a bitter, greedy adult who can traffic in brothers. As we know, God can use anything for good, but that doesn’t mean Judah is going to be spiritually present for the results of God’s grace. His act unwittingly ends up saving his family and he, personally, fathers the tribe that produces King David — God may use you, too. But that doesn’t mean you won’t make yourself disposable after you have pursued yourself or some other master instead of him. Life is meant to be lived in relationship with God. If we don’t do that, we appropriately return to the dust whence ywe came. God brings the life.
So Joseph ends up in Egypt, delivered by Bedouin Express, perhaps with the shipment of the balm the picked up in Gilead. Potiphar buys him. Some people say they can verify that both Potiphar and Joseph were in Egpyt and were the people the Bible says they are, by reading the scarce records of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom during the reign of Pharaoh Amenemhet III
Like many artists have done as Noel Halle did, portraying Potiphar as old and his unnamed wife as young. It is a juicy story. Everyone wants to but a brush to it. It looks like Potiphar may been the head of the secret police, so one could paint the whole picture in 1940’s uniforms. Maybe he is the old, established captain of the guard with his trophy wife. She seems to wish she had a different husband. Maybe she has a reason to wish it — he owns slaves; he may own wives, too.
The artists also like to portray everyone in this story naked, but I like this more chaste rendition by Orazio Gentileschi. It is just so hyper real! — with the beautiful work on the red curtain in the background; it is kind of a “still life with seduction.”
The story is relatively predictable and gets played out on the TV about every night in one way or another. What doesn’t get played out on TV (except on Saving Grace which is a lot like the story of Joseph), is that God is in the middle of this predictable story. Joseph is actually considering God, and that makes all the difference in how this scene gets played out. Joseph is faithful to God; and the story is about how his fidelity is being challenged by his subjection to a master and the invitations of a potential sex partner. If he can maintain his fidelity he will be with God and God will be with him and we can move on to the next challenge.
Considering God, being faithful and moving on seems like just what should happen; it is obvious the obvious choice to anyone who follows Jesus, until you place it in the workplace. In the workplace so many of us are convinced that mentioning Jesus it is impolite, if not illegal – “Better to be put in jail, then,” Joseph might say. Or put us in a relationship with a sexual partner and we might not think morality makes that much sense any more if “they love me and want me.” Some people would sell out God for a chance at sex or love or whatever it is we are doing since we moved in with each other – “Better to never have sex, than not trust God,” Joseph might say. Or put the choosing in our social circle in which half the people are ambivalent about Jesus, at best. We are tempted to give Jesus up whenever we are around such friends because it isn’t nice to believe things and we don’t want to seem pushy by being ourselves or thinking we know where being ourselves leads – “Better to have no friends than to trust such friends,” Joseph might say. But the fact is, 30somethings have been sold out and they are tempted to sell out.
Joseph does two things that are brilliant.
1) He honors who he is. This begs the questions “Do you honor who you are?”
When Potiphar’s wife wants to have sex, Joseph remembers who he is. “No one is greater in this house than I am.”
30somethings are getting hold of their true selves and operating out them, or not. It is their great task.
Listen to Jesus working this out. He tells people who are essentially trying to get him to conform to their way of thinking in John 7:28-30 “I am not here on my own, but he who sent me is true. You do not know him, but I know him because I am from him and he sent me.” Jesus knows where he is from and why he is here. In the face of his opponents he reaffirms who he is and honors his true self, even if others discount him.
It is not easy to be confident about being who we are, especially when we are just learning about that. Sometimes we have a slippery hold on what we’ve been given and what we’re sent to do. That’s why it is so important, during the first fruits of our thirties, when we are feeling our capability, being useful, possibly nurturing a young family and marriage, that we honor who we are. If your faith makes it to thirty, you will be especially challenged to maintain Jesus at the core of who you are. It is the prime sell-out decade for believers.
Joseph was tempted to doubt that what he was entrusted with was worth being faithful to. He was tempted to give up his integrity for an orgasm. It seems that he considered the prospect and then came to his senses. “No, I won’t do this, I am who I am.”
Going through this doubt and staying faithful to our true self is fundamental to overcoming the 30something roadblocks to faith. For instance, if you get married, you’ll face a subset of the problem when you are tempted to doubt the love in your marriage and start over somewhere else instead of going through the problems and letting them refine who you really are, like all good marriages do. The emotional landscape is littered with people who did not make it through that doubt. Many of them are still kicking themselves for giving in to Potiphar’s wife in one way or another. Even if you did give in and you were not faithful or they were not faithful to you, God is much bigger than your faithlessness. But you’ll still have to recognize what you’ve still got from God and go with the maturation of that.
The doubt about who we are, especially applies to our fidelity to our relationship with Jesus. Being 30something is often the biggest challenge to that relationship because the other masters are in full competition for our allegiance. We have something to offer the powers that be and they want us. We can become excellent slaves for their greed or other pursuits. Once they get us in their thrall, we often get re-educated to think about things their way. They pay us to learn their ways. They buy us to do so. They fire us if we don’t. We begin to doubt that following Jesus is worth it. He can tag along if he likes, but He hardly has the stuff to lead. We have to answer hard questions — Do I have Jesus? Is Jesus enough? Who or what owns me and my time? Do I honor Jesus in me?
2. This brings up the other brilliant reaction Joseph demonstrates that saves his fidelity. He risks the wrath of the master. It begs the question, “Do you ever risk the wrath of the master?”
When Potiphar’s wife wants to lure him to go against what is of God, Joseph says one of the phrases in the Bible that everyone needs to put in their knapsack to bring out at the appropriate moment (like 100 times a day), “How shall I do this thing and sin against God?”
The easiest thing to do might have been to have sex. Joseph doesn’t have his own wife, it appears, so having sex would be nice and she wants to do it. But even more, if he doesn’t do what she says, (she is the master’s wife, after all, anyone could see that she might get even), she’ll start screaming and enrage the old man, upon whom Joseph’s whole life depends. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t – that’s life, unless you are faithful to God. Joseph hangs on to his faith in God and risks offending the master and his wife!
Jesus is frank with us about the likelihood of these situations. And I don’t think that when he was telling his disciples this, he wasn’t telling himself (in Luke 12:47ff), “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Don’t you think Jesus was a Joseph? Wouldn’t he also say, “I would rather risk the wrath of the earth-bound people who threaten me than sin against what is from God for all eternity.”
Getting through this fear is the way through the roadblock to faith that comes up in our journey through the thirties. That is especially hard these days, because our whole country has been bending the knee to fear since 9/11. People have been appalled this week that the junta in Myanmar (which our president’s insult-first policy causes him to call Burma), has been surrounding Buddhist monasteries and keeping the monks from going out to protest. It is such naked domination. Meanwhile, the powers that be here in the U.S., have been using the means of domination (mainly the money to buy the air waves and direct the communication) to convince the country to spend billions to pursue Osama bin Laden in Iraq when he is in Pakistan making videos, all out of fear. We’re all reacting to it. Joseph does not react to his fear of the future when he refuses to jump into bed with Potiphar’s wife and that is what keeps him moving toward becoming the man he is destined to become.
More specifically for believers, we have to face our fear of the consequences of following Jesus. Just being a Christian can be a fearsome thing. We have some Joseph–like believers in our cell; I hope they will tell you stories. But, we also have a lot of friends who are really struggling with the fear they have about being a Christian. Simply not doing what others are doing because they go to a cell meeting and a PM each week makes them a weird person in the eyes of their friends and family – that tiny show of devotion gets them in trouble with other masters! What if they did what the Holy Spirit really compells them to do? What if they said what they really believe? What if they doubted out loud about the things that run them, like the things that run them doubt about them? I sent a youtube screed by Bill Maher the other day as an example of what we’re up against.
We’ll see the results of Joseph’s actions in full as the story goes on. At this point we see that his actions get him thrown into prison — where he prospers. The upside-down logic of God is something that 30something Joseph is now fully capable of accepting and living out. All us 30somethings have come to that age and can do it, or not. Now is the time. You’ll either be a slave to an earthly master, commtting adultery against God, your husband, or you will honor your true self and dare to risk the consequences of faithfulness. You’ll say right in their faces, speaking the truth in love, “How could I do this thing and sin against God?”