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Michael Gowen

Pharaoh’s Cupbearer – Forgetfulness

Who are the people who have made a positive difference to our lives along the way? And have we remembered them?

building, modern Photo: Ondreij Supitar (Unsplash, CC)

‘One good turn deserves another’, we say in English and, ‘I owe you one’, when somebody does a favour for us.

The French have an interesting expression for this: renvoyer l’ascenseur – literally, sending back the lift. Maybe, if you speak a language other than English, you have a similar expression in your language. The concept is universal.

Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer was the recipient of a good turn. You can read about him in Genesis 40. He had reached the height of his career and was a happy man. Then one day, something he did offended Pharaoh. We don't know what it was, but it was sufficiently serious for Pharaoh to have him put in prison, along with the chief baker. And it was there that he met Joseph – the one with the technicolour dreamcoat – who by now was a young man in his twenties.

Joseph had already been in the prison for some time and the chief warder had gained such confidence in him that he had put him in charge of all the prisoners. So, one morning Joseph came to the cupbearer and the baker and found them down in the dumps. A bit of sensitive questioning drew out of them the fact that they had both had dreams during the night but had nobody to interpret them. Joseph offered to interpret, though making very clear that he did not have a natural gift of dream interpretation, but it was God who enabled him to do this.

The interpretation of the cupbearer’s dream was very positive: “Within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your position, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just as you used to do.” Then Joseph made a plea to him, “When all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison.” We are not told what was the cupbearer’s response, but we can well imagine him insisting, “Of course I will. I could never forget what you have done for me.”

But, the Bible tells us, the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him – for two whole years, until something dramatic happened. Before we start to say, ‘Oh, I could never have forgotten somebody like that’, let us reflect a little on our own lives. Who are the people who have made a positive difference to our lives along the way? And have we remembered them?

We could start with our parents. They gave us life and, for except in a small minority of cases, they wanted the best for us and “disciplined us for a while as they thought best” (Hebrews 12:10). That is why God exhorts us to honour our father and mother, which is the first commandment that has a promise attached to it (Ephesians 6:2).

Moving on from there, was there a teacher at school who was a significant help to us; or a grandparent, a youth worker, an employer, a Christian leader, or quite simply, a friend? Do we remember what they did for us? Are we grateful for it, and do we bless and honour them?

And how about God? Have you ever had the experience of praying repeatedly and earnestly for something, then finally the prayer is answered? For a time you are absolutely delighted. But then, within a week it has passed from your memory, because you have moved on to other things. That is why we are told, “Praise the Lord, and do not forget all his benefits” (Psalm 103:2). I found 48 times in the Bible when human beings are commanded to remember something – if we need to be reminded so many times, it seems that we are very prone to being forgetful!

What do we remember? So often it is the offences that people have committed against us and the hurts that we have received. When I was working for sea fishermen, one of them wisely told me, ‘You can do 99 good things for these men and then one thing goes wrong, and that will eclipse the memory of the 99.’ That is how relationships can so easily break down: we remember the negative and forget the positive. The antidote to that relationship rupture is the love that God pours into our hearts: “Love keeps no record of wrongs. … It always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:5,7).

As I have been writing this, I have found it beneficial – and challenging – to look back on my own life and think about the people who have significantly influenced me for good. I think of two particular primary school teachers who revolutionised my attitude and motivated me to learn. I don't think I have ever really blessed them – I can’t even remember the name of one; and I have to say, with Pharaoh’s cupbearer, “Today I am reminded of my shortcomings” (Genesis 41:9). Those two teachers, like many other adults from my childhood, have probably passed on from this world; but I can still be thankful for them. And there are many people still alive whom I can bless and give thanks for.

How my life will be changed if I dwell on the positive things which I have received from people and not on the offences and hurts (real or imagined)! Your life can be changed too. Let us, then, consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24).




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