Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 45: 1-15

The Power of Forgiveness

Last time we mentioned our hope of returning to the patriarchs. We have been following Jacob. We noted that the story of Jacob continues in the person of his son Joseph. The first lesson designated for this Lord’s Day features Joseph at the center of one of the most powerfully moving and meaningful scenes in all the Bible. But before we can appreciate what there is to see there, we need some backstory.

Let’s then recall that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son, whom his beloved Rachel bore to him in his old age. Jacob made for him a beautiful coat, an emblem of his favored status. For this reason, Joseph’s brothers envied him. Joseph then shared with his brothers his dreams, which, when interpreted, suggested that Joseph would one day rule over them. Now Jacob’s brothers hated him.

One day Jacob sent Joseph out to check on his brothers while they were grazing their father’s flocks near Shechem. They seized him, stripped him of his coat, and threw him into a pit, leaving him for dead. Later, they decided against killing him. Then they pulled him out of the pit, and sold him to a caravan of Midianite traders for 20 pieces of silver.

The traders in turn sold Joseph as a slave to an Egyptian named Potiphar. This began a period of hardship for Joseph. But God was with him. Through the twists and turns of fortune, Joseph is elevated to second in command in all Egypt.

Later there is a famine in the land. And Joseph is put in charge of food distribution. This is where Joseph’s brothers reenter the scene. The famine has affected them too, and they must travel to Egypt to buy grain. They do not know Joseph is there. They assume he is dead. Joseph disguises himself and meets with them. After a series of interactions with his brothers, Joseph can’t keep up the disguise. He can no longer restrain himself, but bursts into tears. Through his tears, he finally reveals himself to his brothers.

This is where we begin today. Let us then turn to our lesson in the expectation that it has something valuable to teach us about the power of forgiveness.  

“I am Joseph.” Let us pause momentarily to reflect on these three words. Joseph is stating his name. Simple enough, right? But when someone really wounds us, wounds us to the core, it’s hard to state our name, or at least state it like we mean it. Consider when the one whom we admire and respect and love tells us: “you’re never going to amount to anything.” Or consider when the one whom we trusted violates us. Or consider those to whom we so badly wanted to belong reject us. Then we cannot say “I am John” or “I am Jill” or “I am ____. Or rather we can say it, but not without feeling or even thinking at the same time “I am nobody.” 

 

Joseph was rejected and abused by his brothers; his life to them was worth no more than 20 pieces of silver. How is it that now he can look at them directly in the eyes, without shame, and announce himself with a firm voice: “I am Joseph”?

But he goes beyond “I am Joseph.” He refers to his connection to them “I am your brother Joseph.” He has been estranged from his brothers, but adding the phrase “your brother” indicates his desire to reunite with them, to be once again included as one of them, to be restored to them, and to restore them to himself.

This is apparent in the questions he asks them: “Is my father still living?” Whenever we want to reunite with those from whom we have been long been separated, we attempt to weave together with them a shared past. “Do you remember the time when…? Do you remember when he did? Do you remember the look on her face when…?” We do this with friends we have not seen for a long time. In fact, only a few weeks ago a close friend whom I knew when I lived in Milwaukee called me. We hadn’t spoken in at least 11 or 12 years! If the relationship is close, chances are our friend will recognize the shared past, and be willing to reminisce with us. If our reminiscences are vivid, we say afterward: “it’s like we just picked up where we left off.” Or “it’s as if nothing has changed between us.”

But even if Joseph and his brother could recognize their shared past, they are not friends. On the contrary, they are enemies. But again, this is not by Joseph’s choice. After all, he wants reconciliation. How then can he move from estrangement to reconciliation?

Joseph has to be careful here. He is in a position of power over his brothers. They realize this. That’s why they are frozen with terror. We can say that the tables have turned. When Joseph went out as a boy to check on his older brothers in the fields of Shechem, he was vulnerable. And his brothers did harm him. But now his brothers are vulnerable.  And Joseph has the power to harm them. But he does not use his power to this end. In fact, we see here an illustration of one definition of forgiveness: “to let go of the right to harm another in return for the harm done by him (or her).” Joseph needs to reassure his brothers that he does not want revenge. On the contrary, he has plans to do them good, and not to harm them, to give them a future and a hope.

In this connection, we can note that in disclosing himself to his brothers he at the same time discloses who he has become to himself. That is to say, in his encounter with his brothers, in Egypt, where he is second in command, now all becomes clear. What do we mean?

We mentioned earlier Joseph’s dreams. They presaged that Joseph would one day rule over his brothers. But after years of pain and hardship, who would have ever guessed that these dreams now were about to be fulfilled? But now all becomes clear. God placed him in authority over them to fulfill God’s own purposes: the saving of Jacob and his descendants from famine.

This Joseph now sees. That’s why he says: “you sold me here…” “but it was not you who sent me here.” The nexus between these realities is God, who has orchestrated their relationships, their absences and losses, in order to “save life.” God is the one who “sent” Joseph to Egypt.” God is the one who made Joseph “ruler” over his brothers.

But then a question occurs. Does God’s overruling purpose here mitigate or even erase the guilt of Joseph’s brothers? After all, who can resist God’s will?

This is a profound mystery. God does not violate the freedom of his creature to make bad choices. But at the same time God can and does make use of those bad choices to accomplish his own good purposes. In this connection, Martin Luther wrote: God rides the lame horse; God cuts with the dull axe. We say that God is great because he can bring good out of nothing. But it’s an even greater thing to bring good out of evil. The life of Joseph is an example of how God can bring good out of evil. Joseph himself recognizes this truth later, in Genesis 50:20, when he says to his brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” There are two distinct wills here: God’s will and the brothers’ will. The one is and remains good, the other is and remains evil. The brothers know their culpability. That is why, after their father Jacob dies, as we read later, they are fearful that Joseph will turn against them and pay them back for all the wrongs they did to him.

Fortunately for them, that is far from his mind. After Joseph tells them all that he is going to do for them and their father, he falls upon and embraces his brothers—first Benjamin, who is his brother from the same mother, and then the rest of his brothers. Then they talk with one another freely. It is a picture of reconciled relationships, of loved ones restored to each other. And we are moved by the scene if we pause long enough to imaginatively recreate it.

What lessons can we learn about forgiveness from this scene? Let us consider what Joseph and his brothers teach us. When our spouse walks out on us, when our best friend betrays us, when our parents’ dysfunctional marriage leaves us with lasting scars, it is far from easy to forgive. Indeed, it may be the hardest thing we ever have to do. But what did Joseph do? The answer is that he committed himself to God.

We mentioned earlier that when someone hurts us deeply, it affects how we see ourselves. We feel and talk and behave as if we are a nobody. But what if we commit ourselves and our hurt to God? What will happen then? We find out that we are someone before him. We have worth, we have significance. Because of his great love for us, which he revealed to us in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can affirm ourselves. We can state our name without hesitation, without shame. We can reclaim our own agency, so that we are the author of our own thinking, willing and acting. We can say to the one who hurt us: “Because I matter to God, I matter. I have worth. I will not allow what you did to me define me and who I am becoming.”

Is this not what Joseph did? Only God can sort out the mess that others have made out of our lives. God is big enough to handle what has been done to us. God is loving enough to work it together to serve his good purposes, into which he enfolds us too. But do we really believe this about God? Or if we do, can we really believe it as it relates to us and our own hurt? Put otherwise, can we really trust God personally? 

But there is more. After we commit ourselves to God, we need to allow God to heal us. There can be pressure in the Christian community on the victims to forgive the one who hurt them. What if the one who wounded us comes to us with the demand: “you have to forgive me. After all, that’s what Christians are supposed to do.” But forgiveness cannot be coerced; it can only be given freely. Moreover, the one in need of it must be in position to receive it; otherwise, that one receives it in vain. To the one who accuses us of contradicting our claim to be a Christian because we are not ready to forgive, our reply should be: “but are you ready to acknowledge that what you did to me really hurt me?” For if that person is not ready to acknowledge it, then he or she will receive our forgiveness in vain.

Let us not be mistaken about this. At the same, let us acknowledge that as we commit ourselves and our hurt to God, as God heals us, our relationship to the one who hurt us changes. As we are filled and transformed by God’s grace, we begin to see that he doesn’t have what we have, and we feel compassion for him. We begin to feel a desire in us to be restored to him, and we wait patiently to see if that desire is reciprocated. Of course, if it isn’t, we may feel disappointment, but we are not devastated. He no longer has the power to hurt us. But because of God’s power, working within and through us, we have the power to forgive. Amen.       

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